I saw the power of language come to life earlier this summer when I made an eye-opening visit to a day-long orientation held every six weeks or so for new employees of Quicken Loans, the online mortgage lender based in Detroit and owned by high-profile billionaire Dan Gilbert. Quicken Loans is known for lots of things, from torrid growth (the company closed a record $80 billion worth of home loans last year, up from $70 billion in 2012), to much-praised customer service (it is a perennial JD Power customer-satisfaction winner), to its intense and outgoing corporate culture. But behind it all, at the heart of the company’s approach to strategy, service, and culture, is a language system that defines life inside the organization and reminds everyone what really drives success.
Founder Dan Gilbert and CEO Bill Emerson call this language the company’s “Isms” — which is why the rollicking, fast-paced, eight-hour orientation session is called “Isms in Action.” Gilbert and Emerson, who present separately and together over the entire eight hours — an executive teaching marathon unlike anything I have seen before — march employees through the company’s 18 Isms, with a combination of slide shows, stand-up humor, war stories from the trenches, and unabashed appeals to the heart. A few of the Isms get covered in 10 or 15 minutes, some take an hour. But the end result is a full-day immersion in a whole new language — a “vocabulary of competition” that sets the company apart in the marketplace and holds people together in the workplace.
On the day I attended, more than a thousand participants crowded into a ballroom in the Marriott Renaissance Center on the banks of the Detroit River. Gilbert and Emerson urged their new colleagues to embrace the idea that, “The inches we need are everywhere around us” — in other words, there are countless small opportunities for people to tweak a product, or improve a process, that lead to big wins in the marketplace. They insisted, no excuses allowed, that everyone agree with the Ism, “Responding with a sense of urgency is the ante to play.” Gilbert personally emphasized again and again, sometimes with jokes, sometimes with withering disdain, the absolute requirement that Quicken employees return every phone call and every email on the same business day they were received. “We are zealots about this,” he thundered, “we are on the lunatic fringe. And if you’re ‘too busy’ to do it, I’ll do it for you” — at which point he gave out his direct-dial extension and promised to return phone calls for any overwhelmed colleagues.
On and on it went — funny stories, sure, sage pieces of advice, a quick history of the company. But mainly an urgent iteration ands reiteration of the company’s Isms:
“Numbers and money follow, they do not lead.”
“Innovation is rewarded, execution is worshipped.”
“Simplicity is genius.”
In business leadership, as in all forms of leadership, words matter. Indeed, several of the attendees with whom I spoke weren’t new employees at all. They’d come back for a refresher, a reminder, an opportunity to spend a day reacquainting themselves with the language that defines life at Quicken Loans, a chance to spend a day watching the founder and the CEO “talk the walk.”
So ask yourself, as you try to lead an organization, or a business unit, or a department: Have you developed a vocabulary of competition that helps everyone understand what makes your company or team special and what it takes for them to be at their best? Can you explain, in a language all your own, what separates you from the pack and why you expect to win? Even as you make sure to walk the talk, do you know how to talk the walk?