Matt Heller, Founder, Performance Optimist Consulting

Matt HellerMatt Heller has spent 30 years in the amusement/theme park industry. Starting as a ride operator at Canobie Lake Park just out of high school, Matt has enjoyed a robust career around the industry with leadership positions at Canobie, Knott’s Camp Snoopy, Valleyfair and Smiles Entertainment Center. Pulling from his previous leadership experience, in 2003 Matt joined Universal Orlando Resort as the Senior Trainer of Leadership Development where he supported and drove company-wide management and leadership development initiatives.

Matt has also served on the International Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions(IAAPA) Education Committee, as a member and Chair of the IAAPA Human Resources Committee, and currently serves on the Facility Operations Committee.

In 2011, Matt created his own consulting firm, Performance Optimist Consulting, and now helps leaders across the hospitality industry make sure they are getting the most out of themselves and their teams. In 2013, Matt released his first book, “The Myth of Employee Burnout.” In it, he describes his quest to find out why employees start off strong but eventually lose motivation. The book includes strategies for leaders to keep employees engaged and motivated throughout the entire “employee lifecycle”.

In 2017, Matt’s second book, ALL CLEAR! A Practical Guide for First Time Leaders and the People Who Support Them” was released and immediately sold out at the IAAPA Attractions Expo, and has become a go-to resource for developing new leaders in the attractions industry.


What does organizational culture mean to you?

Simply put, organizational culture is how things get done within a company or team. I have found it’s largely based on communication as well as what behaviors are allowed or disallowed in any situation (whether from a leader or peer). Many people mistakenly say they want to develop a culture.The truth is that every company or team already HAS a culture, but it just may not be the culture you actually want. To change a culture within in an organization is difficult, but not impossible.

What are the major determinants of organizational culture?

The major factors that determine what a culture is has to do with what’s expected versus what is recognized or tolerated. You can say that you expect employees to treat each other with respect, but as soon as they are allowed to do the opposite, you just undermined your own efforts. In many ways, culture starts at the top with setting the vision and mission of the company, but it has to be carried out at all levels. Each person in a leadership role must understand the vision and mission and be able to hold their teams accountable for those behaviors. This doesn’t mean they have to do so in military fashion, but rather with compassion and understanding. Each person needs to feel cared for, and at the same time that all rules will be applied equally to everyone.

What is the role of employees in organizational culture?

Your culture is determined by your employees. No matter what you say in training or through organizational channels, the behavior of your employees will show your guests or clients what your culture is all about. If your culture is engaging and supportive, that’s how your guests will be treated. Similarly, if your culture is based on fear and intimidation, your guests will ultimately feel that, too.

What are the common problems associated with managing organizational culture?

The first problem is to understand that culture is not something you address on a part-time basis. Culture is everywhere… in your hiring process, training, company values, guest service, recognition programs, and even how you discipline and terminate people. Another problem is trying to emulate the culture of others, for example, Google or Zappos. That rarely works. For a culture to work, it has to be true to that organization and its employees.

What are the ways to innovate company culture? Any best practices to share.

It’s critical to have a set of values or guiding principles that everyone can buy into. Then, you must align your people processes and procedures with those values (i.e. hiring, training, recognition, termination, etc.) All of your service or tactical processes should also be aligned with company values as well. Then comes the hard part… each value needs to be communicated on a consistent basis and understood by everyone in the organization. Leaders have the special responsibility of not only communicating this but also role modeling the appropriate behaviors and holding others accountable. These foundational elements are so much more important than free food or a ping pong table in the break room. Most people crave structure and to be valued for their accomplishments, and a positive culture that permeates every facet of the business can do this.


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