Lessons in Company Culture from the movie, Elf

The movie Elf was was released 15 years ago. It stars Will Ferrell as Buddy, an orphan who crawls into Santa’s bag of toys and ends up at the North Pole as an infant. Rather than send him back to the orphanage, Santa allows an elf-man who never settled down to adopt and raise Buddy as his own. Buddy simply calls him “Papa” so that’s the only name we ever get to know him by. 

It doesn’t take long before the differences between Buddy and the other elves in the North Pole begin to show. When he starts school, he is clearly larger than the other elves. He has to have special clothes and shoes made for him. When he starts working in the toy factory to prepare for Christmas with the other elves, he is not as fast or accurate as any of the other elves and eventually they move him to the area for quality checks on toys because he was slowing the production. They didn’t make Buddy feel bad about being different — in fact, they went out of their way to highlight all the great things Buddy’s differences allowed him to do that helped the other elves. They allowed him to continue thinking he was an elf just like the rest of them and they did everything they could to remind him that he was wanted, special and accepted on their team. 

Buddy finally figures out he is a human when he overhears the toy-shop foreman speaking to another supervising elf about his performance.   He is devastated! Papa Elf explains to him how he ended up in the North Pole with him and tells him that his biological father is a man named Walter Hobbs, who lives in NYC and works in the Empire State Building and is currently on the infamous Naughty List as they countdown to Christmas… So Buddy heads out on an epic journey to find his dad! 

When he arrives in NYC and goes to meet his dad at the Empire State Building, Walter doesn’t believe that Buddy is his son and wants no parts of him. After security throws him out, Buddy wanders into a nearby department store and ends up in the toy department near the area where children take photos with Santa. He is mistaken for an employee because he is still wearing his North Pole uniform. Buddy makes friends with a co-worker named Jovie and helps out by decorating the entire area with toys, lights and fake snow in preparation for “Santa”, who is supposed to arrive the next day. Buddy, who has met and worked with the real Santa, calls out the fake Santa and rips off his beard in front of all the children and parents in the store. He gets arrested and his father comes to bail him out. 

After conducting a DNA test, Walter accepts Buddy as his long-lost son and invites him to stay at his home. He also invites Buddy to shadow him at his job wearing “regular” clothes. When Buddy gets in the way during meetings, Walter sends Buddy to the mailroom to work instead. Walter describes the mailroom as shiny and fun like Santa’s workshop — but when Buddy gets there, it is anything but shiny or fun! Still Buddy is able to make friends there and have a good time. 

In case you haven’t seen it, I will not reveal the rest of plot details. But ultimately, Buddy along with new family and co-worker-turned-love-interest save Christmas — and get Walter off the Naught List once and for all. 

A Tale of 3 Cultures

Each of the 3 places Buddy works during the movie have distinctive company cultures. 

First, Buddy worked at the North Pole toy-shop. It was bright and clean. Everyone was friendly and inclusive. They were well-trained, highly measured and their performance standards were crystal clear. The mission, vision and values were drained into them from Day 1 and they felt a sincere sense of honor and pride to work there. 

Next, Buddy worked at the department store. It was disorganized. Everyone was standoffish. There was a lack of communication with and recognition among the staff. Leadership was volatile and insecure. Customers left feeling underserved and underwhelmed by their experience. 

Finally, he worked in the mailroom. Buddy was sent there with exaggerated information about the environment and what experience was necessary to succeed. He was given little training about the goals and deadlines — and no information on safety. The other employees were unmotivated and unproductive. The facility was completely undermanaged. 

What’s the Lesson?

Culture is your company’s standard of excellence in action. No matter how great your organization’s intention to provide the best product and service around, it means nothing if the people behind it are not committed to excellence. And since most people do not wake up in the morning committed to providing excellence to other people, it is up to your company to define the standard of excellence, to infuse the standard into each and every touchpoint of your business, and to unrelentingly demand that everyone working there and/or supporting the work there meet the standard. No exceptions or excuses. 

When your company does this, it will run as efficiently and effectively and with as embracement and enthusiasm as the North Pole. When you don’t define your standard of excellence, you will end up with the mediocrity of the department store — and eventually the toxic, hazardous environment of the mailroom. 

One Last Thing … Our buddy, Buddy. 

No matter what his environment, Buddy stayed true to himself and the lessons he learned from Papa Elf and his teachers in the North Pole.  He was a great model of what we should look for in employees and managers when we’re filling positions in our company. He was friendly and honest and worked as hard as he could to ensure he made a positive impact on his environment for his co-workers and customers every where he went.

Work isn’t always easy and it isn’t always fun. We all want to give up and be negative when decisions don’t go our way or we don’t get the recognition we think we deserve. I’ve been there — and somedays, I feel like I am still there. Thanks to Buddy, I am reminded there’s another choice and a bigger reason to keep going, doing and being my best self. 

I hope now you’re reminded too. 

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