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What You Can Learn from How Panda Express Takes a Meeting

To an outside observer, Panda Express might seem like just another successful Chinese-food chain. But its success stems from an unusual corporate culture that centers on personal self-improvement as the route to better business performance.

A recent Bloomberg Businessweek profile of the company details how managers are expected to follow whatever self-improvement program company co-CEO Andrew Cherng is enamored of at the moment. He's cycled through Steven Covey's 7 Habits, Deepak Chopra's The Seven Spiritual Laws of Success, and is now into The Landmark Forum, an EST-like program based in San Francisco that trains 200,000 people a year.

At Panda meetings, managers are known to hug each other and declare what personality trait they're currently working on improving. Managers are encouraged to discuss their personal lives, failings, and difficulties.

The Bloomberg piece notes that there's no requirement that managers take the chosen self-improvement course of the moment. But by the same token, it's clear you're not going anywhere in this company unless you drink the Kool-Aid.

Panda's culture makes a stark contrast to much of what you find in corporate America. At many companies, your career would be torpedoed if you ever dared mention a personal problem -- workers are expected to leave all that at home. Certainly, meetings are expected to be all business. Personal sharing might be done one-on-one in a review or in a small group of coworkers, but not as the core of meetings about driving business success. The just-business culture leads to a lot of people faking it at work or creating a false persona of happiness, as they feel they can't really be who they are. Definitely not a situation that inspires innovation or energizes workers.

A Panda-style corporate culture can drive excellence, or it can be oppressive. Panda Express seems to have found the balance where managers feel the company wants them to take part in self-development seminars because it really cares about them. The fact that Cherng walks the walk, actively taking part in these programs himself, sets an example and makes the approach feel more genuine.

Otherwise, being compelled to get all touchy-feely at the office can simply make workers feel uncomfortable.

Photo via Flickr user Xurble