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Collaborative Cultures Cultivate the Cheesiest Concepts

Flamin’ Hot Cheetos Shows the Janitor May Be Your Next Product Leader


By EM Ricchini

In the years since they entered the market in 1992, Flamin’ Hot Cheetos have transcended simple snack-status to become an undeniable cultural phenomenon. They’ve served as a sartorial muse for Katy Perry and inspired new culinary creations such as a Flamin’ Hot Cheetos bagel and Burger King’s infamous Flamin’ Hot Mac N Cheetos. They’ve even created pandemonium and a subsequent ban after the high content of red dye in its glorious Flamin’ Hot Dust drove concerned parents to their local emergency room, fearing their children were suffering from horrendous internal injuries.

Now the ubiquitous puffed cornmeal treat’s story is being made into a feature film — a testament that ever since its conception, the Flamin’ Hot Cheeto has been anything but normal. Its cult following of stoners and gourmands alike owes their undying affection to one unlikely hero: a humble Frito-Lay janitor named Richard Montañez.

It may seem unusual that this cheesy creation began far from the test kitchen, but former Frito-Lay CEO Roger Enrico practically asked for it. Flamin’ Hot Cheetos is a rags-to-riches type tale that inspires dreamers to never stop creating. It’s also a testament to how important it is to develop a company culture that encourages openness and collaboration, and affirmation of the dividend that investment pays.

The creation of Frito-Lay’s most popular product began when Enrico shared a video to his 300,000 employees proclaiming: “we want every worker in this company to act like an owner. Make a difference. You belong to this company, so make it better.” Many CEO’s pay lip service to this type of empowerment, but few are willing to back it with action as Enrico did.

To Enrico, this sentiment was business as usual. The son of a proud factory worker, Enrico grew up being taught the value of frontline employees — something that impacted the culture he cultivated as CEO. Along with the video, Enrico offered a hotline for employees — regardless of their rank — to make suggestions and offer critiques in response to his challenge. The value he placed on the feedback of employees from the ground up paved the way for a modest janitor to become a snack-time legend — and generated over $1BB in annual sales for Frito-Lay.

Shortly after this call to action, a Cheeto machine broke down, resulting in bags of un-dusted Cheetos being left aside, unfit for sale. This opportunity changed janitor Montañez’s life forever: he asked to take a bag home, since he’d been wondering for some time about what an elote (a popular Mexican street food consisting of butter and chili powder on corn) Cheeto might taste like. Montañez turned those unwanted plain puffs into his initial Flamin’ Hot Cheeto experiment. The bootleg Cheetos were an instant hit with his friends and family. Montañez used the hotline Enrico put in place to share his delicious discovery. Enrico’s personal assistant took the cultural lead from her boss, gave Montañez a date to pitch the idea to the top Frito-Lay executives — and the rest is delectable, spicy, dust-covered history.

Today’s ultra-competitive scramble for talent has elevated “company culture” on an executive’s priority list, but it isn’t a new concept. From the earliest tribes of people, any functioning group has developed a culture. Cultures anchor themselves in shared beliefs and values, and evolve to encompass a set of norms, behaviors, and codes that signal belonging for community members. Whether meticulously planned or a natural evolution, every company has a culture.

Most companies take for granted the codified element of their culture: a declaration or a short piece of a mission statement on a company’s website. It’s the willingness of leadership to model that culture, and to infuse it into the fabric of the organization, that sends the signals required for efficacy. If Flamin’ Hot Cheetos are the textbook case for alignment, look no further than the high-profile disaster that unfolded at Uber for the cost of disconnect.

At first glace, Uber’s culture would seem to match their innovative technology. Their fourteen tenets once features on their website, such as, “always be hustling,” were straight out of the playbook for an innovative tech company. These fourteen tenets relied on tired startup language because that’s all they were. The clichés put a nice sheen on the company culture for an external eye, but in being so generic they both lacked authenticity — and enforceability. No tribe can effectively crib its culture from another, and by failing to define one themselves, Uber’s executive team left employees to fill the void.

The natural pressure that arises in a high-growth organization merged with this void to create a Darwinian hellscape among Uber’s ranks. Employees felt management prized the bottom line above all else — and with no set of shared belief, began to see each other as competitors rather than collaborators. A New York Times interview with 30 Uber employees revealed that along with workers feeling constantly “pitted against each other,” it seemed that those in authority would often turn a blind eye to the infractions of “top performers.”

Effective cultures prize belonging, and trust that fuels superior group performance above all else. So it’s no surprise that for the individual successes experienced by some employees, Uber overall has suffered. Former Uber engineer Susan Fowler penned a scathing blog post detailing her experiences with sexual harassment and how the company chose to protect her harasser, an alleged top performer. After Fowler’s blog went viral, Uber was targeted by a hashtag campaign, #DeleteUber, resulting in a 5 percent drop in market share. Continued cultural infractions have resurrected this campaign organically, and repeatedly punished the growth that executives so highly prized. Uber employees are leaving in droves and its customers are, too.

Contrast this with the company culture at Uber’s primary competitor, Lyft. Ron Storn, Lyft’s VP of People frames their talent strategy succinctly: “People are trying to find an employer that they have a connection with—either their mission, their values, or their product.” Lyft publicly espouses values that are unique to their organization, ensuring that talent is attracted by more than a better set of benefits. This leads to empowered employees driven by cause — and sense of belonging.

Uber and Lyft are identical products. In markets where they compete, differentiation is only achieved through pricing and customer experience. Lyft’s company culture has powered the latter — a reminder that company culture isn’t just about legendary perks, but rather a way to define the relationship between customers, the company, and the values they share.

Values are so often overlooked in the definition of company culture because they are harder to quantify. Google is often seen as the gold standard in company culture, and oversized beanbags, free organic meals, complimentary haircuts, and nap pods are all touted as examples of their employee-centric model. This extra attention to HR (or, as Google calls it, “People Operations”) is not about the tangible benefits bestowed on employees — it’s designed to foster the mission-driven innovation required to keep Google ahead of competitors.

Google’s storied 20 percent rule is a more structured version of Enrico’s video call for employee collaboration, The premise is simple: Google encourages its employees to dedicate 20 percent of their time to projects that they think will benefit Google. This is the ultimate act of employee empowerment: act in the way you see is best for the organization. What one organization might see as a massive, inefficient use of employee time has given the world a product one billion users rely on daily: Gmail.

Google ended the 20 percent rule a few years ago, but the culture of exploration and innovation it fostered remains persistent (and widely copied). But what Google, Lyft, Frito-Lay and countless other organizations keep in common is a culture where employees feel empowered to advance the organizational mission.

The collaboration required for this type of work is rooted in shared values — which can only come from a unique, authentic purpose embodied by leadership. Framing that purpose as a brand story ensures it’s not only heard, but adopted at little or no cost to the employer, but — as Montañez’s Flamin’ Hot Cheeto proved — with an upside impossible to quantify.

EM Ricchini is an associate at Woden. Whatever your storytelling needs may be, Woden can help. Read our extensive guide on how to craft your organization’s narrative, or send us an email at connect@wodenworks.com to discuss how we can help tell your story.