Two Keys to Company Culture at Bonobos
Jason Bacaj | 6 min read
All our clients have great company cultures. And now thanks to Adam Grant—renowned organizational psychologist, professor, bestselling author, and podcaster—the wider world is more knowledgeable about the culture at Bonobos.
We’re highlighting them here in part because we’re proud to work with Bonobos, but also because the anecdotes Adam tells offer insight into their cultural secret sauce.
Adam picked Bonobos as one of four sponsors for the first two seasons of WorkLife, his podcast. The anecdotes reflect a culture in which employees are given agency and empowered to work as they see fit, with legitimate support from senior leaders. Adam played a personal role in selecting the sponsors for his podcast WorkLife, and takes listeners into the workplaces he wanted as sponsors, as he says before each ad.
The Bonobos ads through the first two seasons of WorkLife fall into two categories: one that emphasizes the importance of senior management listening to employees and one that shows the value of empowering customer service representatives to resolve issues as they see fit.
Let’s dive into both types and think about ways your organization can put to use to achieve similar ends.
Listen to employees
Sam Gonzalez, a guide in one of Bonobos’ shops, learned on a company-wide conference call that Bonobos planned to embrace and consider gender identity in an upcoming marketing campaign. Sam transitioned after more than a year of working at Bonobos. Transitioning at work made Sam nervous, but people were “super open, they were incredibly caring and respectful,” Sam told Adam.
Sam emailed Micky Onvural, the then co-president and current CEO of Bonobos, stating that Sam is trans, transitioned while working at Bonobos, and suggested bringing in Chris Mosier for the campaign. Chris became the first openly transgender athlete to compete for Team USA as a member of the men’s duathlon team in 2016.
Micky not only read the email, but she forwarded it to the production team. In a matter of months, Bonobos aired a commercial featuring Chris.
“Think about how rare that is—for a junior employee to feel comfortable emailing someone that high up. I almost never see it even though I spend a lot of time encouraging senior leaders to be open.”
The second example of management actively listening to ideas from all levels tells the tale of how the athletic-fit pant came to be. Tyler Kantor manages the Bonobos shop on Madison Avenue in New York. He noticed when extra muscular guys came in, they couldn’t find pants that fit properly. Most made do with pants that were sizes too big, and just had the waist taken in by a tailor, Tyler told Adam.
An opportunity to tell senior management appeared in the form of a special meeting to collect employee input before the release of a new collection. Tyler’s regional manager encouraged him to speak up about the perceived pants problem.
“‘Fit for every man’ is the mantra that we rally around,” Brad Andrews, Bonobos’ co-president, told Adam.
After a bit of market research to check if there was indeed demand for “pants that could fit the super-fit,” as Adam says. Brad found demand existed, the pants went into production. Now athletic-fit pants have become a popular seller for Bonobos.
Empower customer service reps
Bonobos says that every one of its customer service representatives — who are called Ninjas in-house — is empowered to actually help you. What does that theory look like in practice?
Kelsey Nash, a Creative Customer Engagement Lead, fielded an email from a customer named Derek who had lost one of his favorite flannel shirts in a house fire. Kelsey wrote back, asking whether anyone was hurt, and learned the family lost its dog in the fire.
Kelsey not only replaced the shirt, but found a photo of Derek’s dog online and commissioned a portrait. The painting arrived along with the replacement flannel. And the extra effort was appreciated. Derek told Adam, “I’m not an emotional guy but with all that had happened, it was still very fresh. I definitely cried when I saw the painting.”
“What we pride ourselves on, above everything, is that we’re human. Like, we deal with every contact on a one-to-one basis, as a human answering a phone call, talking to another human, like, ‘Yeah, let’s work this out’.”
The second example of empowered customer service comes from a Bonobos shop in Scottsdale. A married couple, Carla and Aaron, had settled into a routine of golfing together before getting lunch and shopping at the Bonobos store. The two had playful, loving battles when choosing between Aaron’s favored plain patterns and Carla’s preferred brighter prints.
“When you see a couple who loves each other that much, it gives you hope in more ways than one and I think they had an effect on all of us in the shop,” store manager Dee Fuchs told Adam.
The couple didn’t show up for a handful of months. When Aaron did come back to the store, he was thinner, more subdued, and needed to be resized. He was suffering because Carla had a recurrence of breast cancer and had passed a month after the diagnosis.
Dee says his heart dropped when he learned the news. After Aaron left the store, Dee remembered that Aaron had a black tie event coming up and needed a new tuxedo because of the weight loss. Dee knew Aaron admired a capstone Italian wool tux in navy, and rush-ordered the tux for Aaron. Everyone at the store got together and signed a letter to go along with the tux.
What you can do
Maybe your organization isn’t quite ready to allow associates to commission painters for pet portraits. But look a little closer and all the anecdotes Adam Grant cited include strategies you can co-opt.
Both examples of the leadership team actively listening to its employees start in the same way: with the opportunity to converse directly with senior leaders. That flattening hierarchy works isn’t exactly a revelation. Bonobos’ key insight, it seems, is that leaders at all levels of the organization encourage less senior people to share their ideas and take advantage of that opportunity.
Trusting customer service reps to work with autonomy and creativity is a bit trickier. The way Bonobos makes it work is by clearly defining the purpose of their Ninjas.
“Every Ninja is empowered to take care of a customer in the moment, in whatever way that they think is necessary. There’s no real sending it up the ladder and down the ladder to find a resolution.”
Instructing employees to use their discretion and act with humanity is an empowering message, one that’s easy for them to buy into. Just asking employees to focus on the human-to-human aspect of customer or client interactions could help your organization start having noteworthy customer service and a culture that people want to be a part of.
“It’s what you do,” Adam says, “when you believe in the idea that customer relations really are about just that: a relationship.”
BY JASON BACAJ
Jason is a content creator with Wisetail. Through research and interviews, he works to help L&D pros grow the breadth of their knowledge. He’s a recovering journalist fascinated with learning.