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Art of Leading

Dawn Zier

For Hiring, Look Beyond “Cultural Fit.”​ Instead, Find the “Cultural Enhancers.”​

July 22, 2019

Dawn Zier led a remarkable turnaround at Nutrisystem before it was acquired earlier this year by Tivity Health. In our interview, she shared her smart insights on one of the hardest challenges of leadership: changing a corporate culture.

For Hiring, Look Beyond “Cultural Fit.”​ Instead, Find the “Cultural Enhancers.”​

Q. What was your playbook for turning around Nutrisystem?

A. Getting the right culture in place is always first. For Nutrisystem, I put a “FACTS-based” culture in place. The F stands for focus, because you can’t have 20 priorities; you can only have four or five. The A means be accountable, so that everybody has a sense of ownership. You have to own your outcomes, good or bad.

C is for customer, and in direct-to-consumer companies, really listening to the customer is important. T is for team, because everybody has to collaborate. And S is for solution-based.

Q. Did you have that idea going into the culture, or did it evolve once you became CEO?

A. It came out of getting a feeling for the culture I inherited. I did an employee survey early on to understand what people were thinking and to get feedback. I learned immediately that silos existed, that people didn’t feel they had clear goals or objectives, and that there was a lack of accountability.

When people came and spoke to me about their ideas of why the company wasn’t doing well, it was all kinds of hypothetical. I said, “Wait, we’re a data-driven e-commerce company. Where are the numbers? Where are the results?” Given my analytical bent from my engineering background, I wanted to create a data-driven culture with a healthy dose of emotional intelligence wrapped around it.

Q. You talked about the importance of focus and prioritization. What’s your framework for thinking about that?

A. A couple of things done really well are better than ten things done halfway well. It’s really important to focus on the things that can move the needle. And sometimes the things that move the needle aren’t the most interesting or fun things. At Nutrisystem, we really had to get back to the fundamentals of marketing.

Q. How did you decide who to keep on your leadership team when you joined the company?

A. I probably changed about 60 percent of the team. The key question for me was, do we have the right skill sets for the various positions and are they engaged? When I came in, some people were fully in, and with others, it was more, “Well, I’m going to take a wait-and-see attitude. Let’s see what you are going to bring to the table.”

“One of the things that you can’t fake in life is passion.”

That was interesting because these are high-level senior people, and I thought, wow, the company’s been in a little bit of a disarray for the last five years, and you seem to have no passion to fix it. For me, if I had the opportunity to engage during a transition period, I would try to help the company survive and thrive.

But some people decided they were going to go out and golf. That was an easy barometer for me, because one of the things that you can’t fake in life is passion.

Q. What have you done to make sure that the team is actually operating like a team?

A. A key component is having a team that trusts each other and respects each other, and both of those have to be earned. You don’t automatically have trust and respect. But once you have earned trust and respect, you can have the open and candid conversations around the table.

One thing I always tell my team is that I don’t want “yes” people around me. That’s not helpful to the organization. What I value is a diverse set of opinions. I’ll go around the room and hear different opinions, but pretty quickly you have to come together and decide on what the path is going to be. At that point, we should all be rowing in the same direction.

Q. Let’s talk about accountability. How did you make it real?

A. As analytical as I am, I’m a little more subjective when it comes to performance. I often say that I’ve never fired anybody for making a mistake, but I’ll fire you for not owning it. That may sound a little harsh, but it sends a really positive message, because you need a culture that allows you to try new things, and then you need to be disciplined about failing fast. As long as there’s ownership, there’s room to grow.

Q. When you mentor up-and-coming leaders, what advice do you share?

A. One concept I share with my people as they get more established in their career is the idea of “lead, follow, pass.” There are times when you want to take a leadership role for a particular initiative. And there are other times when it’s okay to say, “I’m not going to take the lead on this; I’m going to follow.” You don’t have to prove yourself all the time, and that thought is quite liberating. You don’t always have to raise your hand.

There are also opportunities in life where you might want to say, “Pass, this isn’t for me,” and be okay with that. Even if it’s a great opportunity, you can say, “Not right for me, not right now.” Millennials actually do this pretty well. They inherently know how to lead, follow, pass better than people in my generation do.

Q. With all the inevitable change during a turnaround, how do you set the tone so that people are open to it?

A. What people crave is candid communication. Whether they like what you tell them or not, they want to know. As executives, we need to commit to candor, to clear communication, and in situations such as turnarounds, you can never over-communicate. Be honest and as transparent as possible – that’s compassionate. If you can’t tell people things, just say you can’t.

If I can say we’re going from Point A to Point B, it’s helpful to clarify what that Point B is, but all the anxiety stems from the path from A to B. So you need to be really diligent in defining how you’re going to get there. If people know you’re going to be candid with them and tell them what’s happening, you can get them to come on that journey with you. But you have to earn that trust.

Q. How has your approach to hiring evolved?

A. One of the things that I like to do on a regular basis is to look at regrettable losses in the company. Who left that I didn’t want to leave and why did they leave? Or who left that I was relieved that they left? It always comes down to a cultural fit.

But I actually don’t like to use the phrase “cultural fit” anymore. I like saying “cultural enhancers,” because you always want to continue to build and enhance the culture. So I spend a lot of time in interviews really trying to assess that. Moving from cultural fit to cultural enhancer is important because each person brings something unique to the table.

“It’s easy to find smart people. But what’s that unique ‘wow factor?’”

It’s easy to find smart people. But what’s that unique “wow factor?” I look for passion. If somebody’s not excited, if somebody’s not passionate, I don’t want them on the team. When you’re turning around a company, when you’re growing a company, it’s hard work. You need passion, otherwise you have status quo, and status quo doesn’t cut it any day.

Q. What is your best interview question?

A. I like people who have grit, and who have some experience that has changed them or has equipped them to deal with tough situations. So I’ll ask, “What was something in your life that was hard for you? When did you have to demonstrate some grit? What was something tough that happened in high school that formed your thinking?” When you go back to those younger ages, you can get some insight in terms of how people think and what they’re passionate about.

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