“Our frontline people don’t work for us; we work for them. Our job is to support them in their job.” —James F. Nordstrom, former co-chairman of Nordstrom Inc.

1: “Dollar for dollar, Nordstrom is one of the great stories in U.S. business,” write Robert Spector and breAnne Reeves in The Nordstrom Way to Customer Experience Excellence: Creating a Values-Driven Service Culture.

This week we are exploring some of the key drivers of Nordstrom’s success. Yesterday, we examined the question at the center of Nordstrom’s strategy: What would the customer want?

Today, we turn to the “Inverted Pyramid,” which Robert and breAnne call the “cornerstone of the Nordstrom culture.”

2: Unlike most organizations, the CEO or Board of Directors do not sit atop the Nordstrom organization chart. Customers do. 

Nordstrom salespeople are encouraged to treat each customer as a whole person, as an individual with their own likes and dislikes. “Frontline people are empowered to establish relationships with customers and to find ways to take care of them,” the authors write. This philosophy creates trust. “Customers want to do business with a company—and an individual—they can trust.”

The next level of the pyramid is the salespeople. “Customers are on top because they are the most important. But the next most important are the salespeople because they are the ones who are closest to the customers,” observe Robert and breAnne. “Beneath them are … [the] department managers, and executives, all the way down to the board of directors. This is both a literal and symbolic way of how the company does its business.”

3: “There’s a lot of meaning to the Inverted Pyramid because it reflects our values,” says Nordstrom CEO Erik Nordstrom. “The Inverted Pyramid guides our leadership style, which is about support, not command-and-control.”

As people are promoted through the managerial and buying ranks, they are referred to as “moving down the pyramid,” “supporting” their departments, and providing “servant leadership,” note Robert and breAnne. 

“Part of my job as a servant leader is to serve my team up the Inverted Pyramid,” said regional store manager Greg Holland. “I ask the people I support questions such as: ‘What’s getting in your way? What is the thing that’s frustrating you that I can help to alleviate?’ I get my kicks out of serving others. It makes me feel good.”

Nordstrom’s Inverted Pyramid is crucial to creating trust up and down the organization. “Those of us farther down the Inverted Pyramid know our marching orders, which is to support those closest to the customer. That’s a huge trust factor,” says manager Adrienne Hixon.

More tomorrow!


Reflection: Why does servant leadership and the “Inverted Pyramid” create trust?

Action: Discuss with my team or with a colleague.

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