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  • Writer's pictureNick Caldwell

The best employee handbook ever

Nordstrom’s unexpected gift to aspiring tech leaders

Back in 2012 I took a class on organizational culture at the Berkeley Haas School of Business. At the time I was a self-taught, rough-edged manager looking for any guideposts on the very difficult path toward becoming a leader. It was in this class that I first began to understand organizational culture, not as something that was emergent from the activities of a team, but as something that could be shaped intentionally with purpose.

The professor defined culture as, “a system of shared values, norms, beliefs, expectations and assumptions held by members that distinguishes an organization from others.” That’s an academic-sounding and much less creepy way of saying every company is its own cult, with its own leaders, heroes, language, rewards, ceremonies, artifacts, and kool-aid used to reinforce desired behaviors.

During class, we talked through examples from many companies: Microsoft, Netflix, Cisco, Google, Uber, and more. We learned that you can’t always judge a culture comparatively (e.g. is Microsoft culture better than Amazon’s or Netflix’s or Uber’s) but we can ask whether a culture is well aligned to the goals of an organization and how it compares with society as a whole. One company and one singular artifact hooked my attention: The Nordstrom Employee Handbook.

For many years, new employees to Nordstrom were greeted with a simple 5x8" card on their very first day on the job. Take a read:

I fell in love with this handbook the first time I read it. I know, it’s strange for a tech leader to be enamored with the teachings of a centenarian clothing company, right? Trust me for a minute, there is much to learn here. Allow me to unpack it:

  1. All great mission statements are comprised of a clear goal and timeline. With Nordstrom, the employee’s mission is crystal clear: outstanding customer service. It goes unsaid that the timeline is right now.

  2. The handbook tells employees to set their goals high not simply because they must but because they can achieve them. Without being grandiose, broey, or condescending this handbook implies that Nordstrom hires those who are amazing professionals and humans with high potential. By way of comparison, how many times have you heard a tech recruiter or leader bluntly say, “We’re a sports team,” in the last few years?

  3. You just can’t read, “there will be no additional rules PERIOD,” without feeling like you’ve got two middle fingers up to the man and Rage Against the Machine blaring through your speakers on full blast. Independence! No boundaries! Freedom! The idea that there are no rules but the ones we invent for ourselves is a cornerstone of the growth mindset. Yet this ultimate freedom is tempered by the heavy weight of responsibility and the critical need for your “best judgement.”

  4. The handbook even slyly asks employees to ignore hierarchy when needed, practically begging them to question the status quo. Every level of management is available and supportive at any time.

  5. Trust. In every sentence the message just beneath the surface is: “we trust our employees to do to the right thing for our company and customers.

After reading this handbook, I shamelessly borrowed and modified it for use in my own teams. The cultural values expressed here both explicitly and implicitly resonated deeply with me. Freedom, responsibility, lack of boundaries, fearlessness, urgency, and mission-setting are all swirling around thick in those few sentences. There are many ways to run teams and I encourage you leaders to seek wisdom wherever you can. But for me, this is undoubtedly the best template for an employee handbook there is.


Now look, let’s reality check. No rules? Really?

I know lots of people who work at Nordstrom and I know that this handbook is no longer used. I know that it represents an idealized view of their culture. And I know it can’t truly be taken at face value without getting yourself fired. So what? If this isn’t real then admit it is a beautiful example of management art and let it inspire your leadership thinking.

Years after the class, with time and experience, I have grown to appreciate the thoughtfulness that tech companies like Reddit, Amazon, Netflix, Google, and others put into crafting culture and how it can drive behaviors, good and bad. I’ve seen time and again that the biggest predictor of a successful organization is how well it invests in company culture. Not only that, truly amazing organizations influence the culture outside their walls by giving back to community and society. Yes this sounds lofty, but I firmly believe that the highest calling of any organizational leader is in purposefully shaping culture to create an environment in which people and teams can be their best.

So, current and future leaders, what’s on your team’s 5x8" card?

rock on -nick



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