Mapping Patagonia’s ‘Let My People Go Surfing’ Workplace Culture

Patagonia’s founder Yvon Chouinard set out to build an “un-company” ––one whose principal concern was taking care of employees, customers, and, above all else, the planet.

The “not bound by convention” workplace culture has allowed Patagonia to build a $1 billion business with over 3,000 employees globally.

“Going back to a simpler life based on living by sufficiency rather than excess is not a step backward.” –Yvon Chouinard

How does Patagonia’s unique culture actually work? What elements can you apply to your organization?

This post describes the key elements of Patagonia’s workplace culture, applying the Culture Design Canvas.

Note: The sources are listed at the end of the article.

Patagonia Culture Design Canvas: The Core

“We’re in business to save our home planet,” is outdoor gear and clothing retailer Patagonia’s updated purpose.

It’s a more succinct update from its previous one, “Build the best product, cause no unnecessary harm, use business to inspire and implement solutions to the environmental crisis.”

Patagonia’s core values reflect the soul of a company started by a band of climbers and surfers and their desire for simplicity and utility.

As the company states on its website: “As the climate crisis deepens, we see a potential, even probable end to such moments, and so we’re fighting to save them. We donate our time, services and at least 1 percent of our sales to help hundreds of grassroots organizations all over the world so that they can remain vigilant, and protect what’s irreplaceable. At the same time, we know that we risk saving a tree only to lose the forest—a livable planet. As the loss of biodiversity, arable soils, coral reefs, and freshwater all accelerate, we are doing our best to address the causes, and not just symptoms, of global warming.”

Patagonia has four core values:

Build the best product:
Our criteria for the best product rests on function, repairability, and, foremost, durability. Among the most direct ways we can limit ecological impacts is with goods that last for generations or can be recycled so the materials in them remain in use. Making the best product matters for saving the planet.

Cause no unnecessary harm
We know that our business activity—from lighting stores to dyeing shirts—is part of the problem. We work steadily to change our business practices and share what we’ve learned. But we recognize that this is not enough. We seek not only to do less harm, but more good.

Use business to protect nature
The challenges we face as a society require leadership. Once we identify a problem, we act. We embrace risk and act to protect and restore the stability, integrity, and beauty of the web of life.

Not bound by convention
Our success—and much of the fun—lies in developing new ways to do things.

Strategic priorities

The planet even over everything else.

As the updated company purpose clearly states, Patagonia has put protecting our home planet above everything else. There’s no business if there’s no planet.

Patagonia commits 1% of its total sales to environmental groups, through One Percent for the Planet. Organizations that are part of One Percent for the Planet commit 1% of their annual net revenue to nonprofits focused on conservation and sustainability.

Employee well-being and development even over profit.

2008 was not a good year for Patagonia (and many other companies). However, the outdoor company didn’t cut employee benefits as most companies did. Patagonia kept its onsite childcare, didn’t reduce health care or training and development.

Culture add even over culture fit
Being an environmental activist or a surfer is not enough to get a job at Patagonia. The company doesn’t want to hire employees who are identical in their interests and experiences, but people who will bring new skills and perspectives.

Behaviors that are rewarded or punished

“Every time we’ve elected to do the right thing, it’s turned out to be more profitable.”

–Yvon Chouinard

The company rewards:

Bailing out protesters: Patagonia trains employees to protest peacefully. However, if they are arrested, the company will not only pay their bail – including court time, legal fees, and time off- but also their spouses’ bail.

Team players, not stars: At Patagonia, the best results are driven by collaboration. Patagonia’s workplace culture rewards the ensemble player, not those who want the limelight.

Authenticity: Patagonia wants employees to be who they are. The company has stayed true to its foundational values and wants people to be authentic, too.

The company punishes:

Government failing to protect the environment: Patagonia sued US President Donald Trump to preserve public lands in Utah at risk of being opened up to potential drilling and mining.

Consumerism: Patagonia started the anti-Black Friday movement with a famous campaign: “Don’t Buy This Jacket.” It broke down the environmental impact of producing their best-selling jacket, inviting people to consider if they really needed it before making the purchase.

Companies that don’t care about the environment: Rose Marcario recently announced that Patagonia would only take on new corporate clients if that company has robust sustainability plans.

Patagonia’s Workplace Emotional Culture

Psychological Safety

At Patagonia, people choose whether or not they want to participate in a project.

The company encourages open communication. Its dynamics represent the shape of a network rather than that of a traditional pyramid. The CEO or chairman (Yvon Chouinard) can speak directly to those who need to get the job done, even if they’re an entry-level person.

Everyone is encouraged to speak up and challenge what’s happening; even challenge the mountain (Patagonia’s metaphor for a challenge or goal).

Psychological Safety is not just about making it safe to speak up, but about having representation.

At Patagonia, there’s a genuine concern to make sure a big majority of people are weighing in.

As Dean Carter, Patagonia’s CHRO, explains here, “At town halls, I ask the question, ‘How many of you have gotten feedback in the last week?’ and 70 percent of the room will raise their hands. Then I say, ‘How many of you have changed your behavior this past week as a result of feedback you received?’ And 70 percent of the people will raise their hands. That’s pretty incredible.”

Another unusual leadership practice is MBA — Management By Absence. Patagonia’s founder and chairman spends a lot of time traveling and testing new products. Chouinard wants people to question authority and challenge decisions.

Rituals At Patagonia

Resumes are read from the bottom up: If you’re looking to hire people who are authentic and different, why not start by learning about their hobbies and personal interests rather than their professional experience?

Emotional exit interviews: Considering Patagonia’s employee retention rate (96%), people exiting the company is a rare experience. That’s why the company takes exit interviews pretty seriously; every employee who is about to leave has to talk with the CHRO.

Exit interviews at Patagonia are less about the company and more about the person leaving. The CHRO wants to understand, ‘Why did you join?’ ‘Did we do that?’ ‘What was the experience we delivered for you?’ ‘Where was the difference in that?’

Most interviews are very moving for both parties.

“Go surfing:” Practicing outdoor sports (surf, ski, etc.) is at the core of Patagonia’s business. The company takes this very seriously, encouraging employees to take the time to practice the sport they love even if it’s during business hours.

Feedback

Patagonia has replaced annual performance reviews with regular feedback using digital tools. Additionally, employees have quarterly check-ins with their managers.

An important aspect of feedback is that the company realizes that unsolicited feedback doesn’t work. The company emphasizes asking employees for feedback rather than providing feedback to them.

As Carter once explained, “We’ve learned that when you give someone unsolicited feedback, basically nothing happens. But if you request feedback, the person you request it from is more likely to request feedback themselves. They’re likely to request feedback from three other people.”

To create generosity around feedback, Patagonia doesn’t encourage people to give feedback; it encourages them to ask for feedback.

Patagonia’s Culture Design Canvas: The Rational Culture

Meetings

At Patagonia, scheduling a meeting during lunchtime is forbidden because people are doing yoga or running.

The company also has regular town hall meetings to share what’s going on.at the company and share best practices.

The physical environment is flexible and open. There are no private offices; everyone works in open rooms with no separations. Not even the founder has a private office. Interestingly, he pays for his own lunch at the cafeteria.

Meetings at Patagonia are family-friendly. It’s not unusual for kids to join a  meeting unexpectedly, or to see women nursing in meetings, and no one bats an eye. 

Rules & Norms

Let my people go surfing: Patagonia understands that when the waves are up or the powder is down in the Sierra, employees will set aside their work and head out to have fun.

The flexitime policy allows employees to “catch a good swell, go bouldering for an afternoon, pursue an education, or get home in time to greet the kids when they come down from the school bus.”

Patagonia hires people that love being outside; this policy allows people to do what they would nevertheless do.

Paid time off for volunteering: At Patagonia, employees that have been at the company for at least one year can take up to two months off, with pay, to volunteer with an environmental organization or project.

Paid nanny on business trips: Patagonia pays to send a nanny on a business trip so that an executive can travel with her child. This policy allows people to be close to their loved ones and also be productive.

Patagonia has onsite childcare, a benefit that has existed for over 30 years, a key driver to the 100% retention rate for its working mothers. Interesting to note, several current employees had once attended Patagonia’s daycare when they were children.

Decision-Making

Managers provide context and resources: Their role is to ensure that the work is aligned with the overall strategy and allocate necessary resources. They share how things work and the direction they’re headed in but it’s up to teams and individuals to get work done.

Consider the impact of a decision 100 years from now: Yvon Chouinard has taught Patagonia executives to consider the long-term impact of their choices. Taking into consideration how a decision might affect the environment is consistent with Patagonia’s purpose.

Decisions are made through consensus: Patagonia practices a democratic approach to decision-making.

As Chouinard explained, “The best democracy exists when decisions are made through consensus… Decisions based on compromise often leave the problem not completely solved, with both sides feeling cheated or unimportant.”

However, this represents a challenge for Patagonia. The lack of a clear hierarchy makes it difficult for people to understand who makes a specific decision.

Another challenge is re-training managers that come from command-and-control organizations. They must learn how to let go of authority and incorporate their teams in the decision-making process.

The board picks the mountain; the players define how to conquer it: At Patagonia, a mountain is a metaphor to describe a challenge that the company wants to tackle. The leaders have a long-term vision, pick the mountain, and motivate people to conquer it.

One mountain that Patagonia has been focusing on is sustainable apparel. Then, one day, Yvon encouraged the team to attack agriculture or food. Those mountains, although not directly related to the products Patagonia sells, are part of the company’s purpose.

Once leadership defines the mountain, people have the freedom to determine how they will conquer it.


Patagonia’s workplace culture is the result of a well-designed system that has allowed the company to consistently outperform its competitors, enjoying continuous growth and unmatched employee retention.

“The word adventure has gotten overused. For me, when everything goes wrong – that’s when adventure starts.”

–Yvon Chouinard

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Patagonia’s Website: Culture & Life

Let My People Go Surfing, by Yvon Chouinard

Patagonia: Our Reason for Being

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