Success Bred From Culture

In a post today for Inc. magazine online, Scott Elser, who is the co-founder of Launchpad Advertising, discussed what he and the founding team consider to be the driving force in the company’s success: culture. Elser described how he and his partner left a big advertising agency to create their own. In typical fashion, they did tons of analysis, planning and revisions. However, by devoting precious time to define the work culture they wanted to have inside the agency, they successfully set the “DNA” for all who joined them in their dream.

The co-founders knew they had to combat the stereotypes of arrogance and poor attitudes that prevail in the industry. Elser writes, “While most people I’ve worked with at agencies are great, there are always a few that bring their own brand of “I am awesome and you are not.” That attitude can set the tone for an entire office. They make things miserable for everyone. We wanted to create something different–an agency that people actually wanted to work at–and started that effort on day one. Long before we had employees, we envisioned a day in the life at the Launchpad of the future. What would the culture be like? How would people feel about working at this agency? What would they say to their friends about the agency? “

Corporate culture diagramWord to the Wise (Founder)

While it is easy to become consumed with any of a number of details during start-up mode, one should not lose sight of the value of a strong company culture. Culture does not just happen; it must be created! Think through what you have enjoyed when working with others in the past and what you desire to avoid. Consider what intangibles create a great place to work versus those that create division, boredom, and low morale.

Launchpad created an objective that is paraphrased by Elser in his blog post as follows:

“Like any job, there are good days and not so good days. But we want to create an agency where each and every person who works there can come to work every day believing that today can be a great day.”

He goes on to offer the following observations:

From this strategic objective was born what has become our primary rule: the Launchpad No Jerks Policy. It’s born of the belief that there are talented people out there who are also nice people, so there’s no reason to hire someone with a negative attitude, huge ego or destructive personality. 

It was a year later we hired our first employee, and we’ve since staffed up to become a 50-plus person shop. From day one our No Jerks Policy has driven every hiring decision we’ve ever made. Even contractors and freelancers are held to this standard. The result is an agency that delivers a great creative product and is great to work at. There’s more collaboration, ideas really can come from anyone and the environment is more “drama free” than any company I’ve ever worked at before. We’re an agency where the owners hold themselves to the same standards as everyone else. 

How about your company–whether it employs 5 or 500, you must consider how many “jerks” are members of your staff. What are the implications to customers/clients, attracting new employees, retaining top performers, and being able to delegate as the business outgrows your ability to manage it all? 

Company culture is the result of best intentions mixed with a long term commitment. 

 

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Entrepreneurial Banking

There is a long standing feud between bankers and entrepreneurs. What, one may ask, is the point of contention? Money, of course! Banks have money and entrepreneurs would like some of it in the form of loans to fund their start-ups. However, many in the banking community  consider start-ups far too risky. As a result of tougher credit standards enacted during the recession, less small businesses than perhaps at any prior point are qualifying for loans–even if they have strong management teams, revenues, and a significant upside.

What if banks awakened to the possibility of viewing start-ups as a diversification in a portfolio of loans? What if entrepreneurial ventures became appetizing to banks exactly because they represent a potential upside that is greater than the average loan return and, therefore, worth a strategic role in an array of credit decisions? Joy of all joys!

bank caricature

Recently, the Evening Standard profiled Ana Botin, head of Santander in the UK . The article featured Botin’s views on why her bank vowed to support small to medium sized businesses across the UK. It was 

reported that Santander “didn’t want to play it safe and that they had in fact spotted a gap for high growth, risky companies who needed financial support without losing a chunk of equity.” Despite being a big player in the savings and mortgages arena, plus enjoying success in the retail sector with 14.6 million customers, the bank had made a bold move to more aggressively support SMEs.

Kelly Dolan, writing for Entrepreneur Country, reports witnessing Botin open an event organised by Santander Breakthrough in Oxford last year in which she shared her personal story of entrepreneurial beginnings in venture capital and consulting prior to embarking on her current banking career.  Dolan also noted the “passion Botin displayed when speaking on the founding story of Santander, once a small Spanish bank that prided itself in helping local businesses get off the ground. Ana then spoke metaphorically on how she had witnessed how similar the banking industry was to an army, and that as CEO it was her mission to break down barriers and infiltrate the ranks so that bankers could finally begin to understand the importance of UK SMEs and why they were so crucial to British economy, which would of course reflect on the success of the bank. And for anyone that may have doubted her rhetoric on the day, you only had to spot Ana laughing and joking away with fellow keynote and Ella’s Kitchen Founder Paul Lindley during the interval to see that she felt right at home conversing with entrepreneurs. Ana’s presence and the Breakthrough event as a whole, which the bank runs for free across the UK to enable entrepreneurs to seek knowledge, network and share ideas, demonstrated to me that Ana had big plans for small business owners, along with a serious dose of empathy due to once being in their very position once before.”

 

Noting how rare Botin, her story, and Santander’s appreciation of the SME market are, Dolan questions whether more banks European banks should get into the “game.” I wonder the same thing about banks in the United States. It certainly seems that many of the larger banks seem disinterested in any deal that is truly entrepreneurial, disdaining the risk though the potential “hockey stick” growth is certainly desirable. Community banks seem slightly more supportive, and venture banks more so still. Let’s hope that many more will observe Santander having success and reconsider their own models!

 

Wannabe Entrepreneur – Or Real Deal?

 

What’s the difference between an entrepreneur and a “wannabe?” In many settings, there are people who talk a good game, but don’t really have the follow through to launch a business. Erica Douglass, a 20s something entrepreneur who already sold a a business for over $1 million, has identified 5 traits that differentiate earnest entrepreneurs from what she terms “wantrepreneurs:” 

Wannabe

1. A willingness to learn anything.

You’re never going to be successful if you externalize what’s wrong (I can’t hire a developer because I don’t have any money/no one will give me money, and therefore I can’t start or build my product.) It’s a poor attitude.

Isn’t it better to hire someone who knows what they’re doing? In the future, yes. Right now, though, you don’t even know how to tell whether someone knows what they’re doing or not. Plus, without a spec or prototype, you’re going to spend a whole lot of extra money and time having someone else do it wrong over and over again (because again, even the best developer can’t read your mind.)

Once you understand how building a website works, you can dip your toes into code. Read up on the differences between Python, Ruby on Rails, and PHP. Pick one to learn. Spend a week learning the basics. Then spend the next couple of months hacking on weekends. This will help you figure out whether that developer you’re about to pay a fortune to actually knows what he or she is doing.

The point of this exercise is three-fold. One, it gets you familiar with how to articulate your vision to a developer. Two, since you have more time than money, it shows everyone (including prospective developers) that you’re serious and committed to this project. And finally, if you can get something up there, even if it’s just a sketch with buttons that don’t work, you can start showing it to prospective customers and asking them to commit to paying for it. (Note that I didn’t say “Asking them how much they would pay for it.” I said “Asking them to commit to paying for it.” There’s a huge difference. Only one path will show you whether your idea will actually be successful.)

2. Going above and beyond to build something that people want.

If you haven’t been in your market for years, and you have an idea for a product that requires the market–your potential customers–to think about things in a totally different way, that’s the most likely path to failure. So what’s the better option? Finding out what’s in the market and what people hate about what’s out there. Then, instead of trying to “shock” them with something totally new, just incrementally improve on what’s out there.

3. Not knowing where your next dollar is coming from, but going forward anyway.

Startup founders and entrepreneurs are inherently scrappy folks. The people I hear who “pooh-pooh” consulting and “trading dollars for hours” are the ones most likely to fail on a project. If money gets tight, scrape together as much consulting work as you can and live as frugally as you can. Yeah, it’s not ideal to do consulting and try to run your own business, but you do what you have to do.

Ask yourself this: Do you believe in your startup idea so much that you’d be willing to sell your car and drive a beater for the next year in order to fund yourself for another month? If the answer is no, you need to decide: How committed are you to running your own business?

4. Being willing to launch and ship even when it’s not perfect.

This has been the hardest one for me. There’s always one more feature to build, or something that customers expect that you don’t have. Customers (or potential customers!) can even get emotional and/or upset that you don’t offer something they expect. And if what they’re asking for is completely unrealistic and/or it would take your product in a direction you’re not interested in going, cut them loose. Part of the answer is about setting expectations. The other part of the answer is being willing to let go. 

5. Clearly articulating your vision of the future…and getting people to believe it.

The best entrepreneurs and business owners are evangelists. They are passionate about their market. If you have the presence to get other people excited, and sharing in your vision, you can do anything. Great employees will turn down other, more lucrative jobs to work with you. Customers will show up, because your passion will come through.

 

Rethink What it Takes to Innovate

Innovation inside big businesses requires a culture in which people feel relaxed, fairly rewarded, and valued. The same applies to small businesses, right? Recently, Charles Day, the CEO of Lookinglass, wrote an article for Fastcocreate on this truism as it relates to creative talent. He observes that, “Many creative businesses limit their talent recruitment and retention strategies to money and flattery.”

Day recommends the following 8 means to attract and retain top creative talent. Consider how many of these practices may be good human resources concepts that would apply across the board!

upside down worker

1. BUILD AN EVANGELICAL BUSINESS

Creative people yearn to make one thing more than any other. A difference. They want to solve problems they believe are important. Ten years ago, Netflix and Blockbuster were in the same business. The difference lay in their respective visions of the future of movie rentals. Internet-supplied delivery at your convenience? Or rainy Thursday nights staring at an empty shelf in a store? Which set of problems would you rather solve? 

2. AVOID THE DEFLATIONARY VALUE OF MONEY

In Daniel Pink’s excellent book, Drive, he explains that many creative people are in fact demotivated by money. In some cases it makes them perform worse, because when a task becomes “work,” creative people tend to feel restricted. As a manager, focus whenever you can on highlighting the intrinsic value of solving a client’s problem. And when your company decides it must “do it for the money”–an economic reality in virtually every business–be mindful of the impact this has on your most creative people.

3. PAY FAIRLY

There is a time to spend money. Paying “below the market” shatters trust. Many companies ignore this truth, underpaying early on when the company can, then overpaying later in order to keep talent locked in place. This builds suspicion and destroys loyalty. Instead be relentlessly pro-active in maintaining market-parity compensation, with bonuses for extraordinary results.

4. MEASURE PROGRESS

At Rosetta, one of the industry’s fastest growing interactive agencies, the rigor of the employee review program stands in stark contrast to most creative businesses. Employees are measured on a set of four published benchmarks that encourage both personal initiative and collaboration. The system is transparent and consistent. At the end of the year, everyone is evaluated and rated against their own peer group at their own level. This ensures that every employee has a clear understanding of how much progress they have made. According to a recent Harvard Business Review study, nothing matters more to ambitious people.

5. ENGINEER ENGAGEMENT

Gallup Organization research has shown that most people become less engaged with an organization over time. Nothing dilutes loyalty more than a company’s willingness to support under-performers. Be relentless about improving or firing the weakest links and raising standards and expectations. It attracts and unlocks greatness. 

6. INVEST IN INDIVIDUALITY

Google famously attributes its growth to the investment it’s made in allowing 20 percent of engineers’ time to be used for anything they want, so long as it makes Google a better company. Creative companies that charge by the hour can’t match this level of investment. But when you decide to invest zero in the possibility that your talent can create value in unpredictable ways, it suggests you think they are not capable of doing so.

7. BE OPEN. BE HONEST

Transparency is essential to attracting and retaining great talent. We define transparency as this: telling what you can and explaining what you can’t. Sharing openly encourages your people to give you the benefit of the doubt. Critical to building loyalty.

8. SAY THANK YOU

The artist in all of us needs to be recognized. So does the human being. And yet most companies are slow to praise or even to thank. Which is strange since each of us makes a choice every day about where we work. It need not, after all, be here. Saying thank you at the end of every day has always seemed to me to be a small acknowledgement that you take neither their talent nor their choice for granted.

 

Is Coaching the Facial Tissue or the Kleenex?

 

Have you noticed how frequently the word ‘coaching’ is used these days? You don’t read an article, attend a leadership workshop, or even speak with managers without ‘coaching’ being generously referenced.  It’s used to describe the act of:

  • Helping someone do something
  • Chewing others out
  • Passing along information
  • Delegating a task
  • Recognizing what’s gone well
  • Giving feedback
  • Teaching a skill

It seems that for many, ‘coaching’ has grown to generically refer to any interaction a leader might initiate… much like Kleenex’s relationship to all other tissue. But, not all conversations are coaching; and coaching certainly is not Kleenex!

As leaders, many of us have gotten sloppy with our language. Maybe it’s because we know that coaching is a desirable behavior within most organizations. Or maybe we want to couch tougher conversations in constructive packaging. In any case, the lack of precision around our language translates to a lack of precision around our behavior… and that’s compromising the power of coaching.

Kleenex coachingThe above commentary on the demise of  “coaching” as a term and practice comes from a blog post last week from Julie Winkle Giulioni. I share in her lament that a perfectly good word has been misappropriated for a litany of weaker approaches. When I think of a coach, I envision someone who is making a difference in another’s life through one-ton-one impartation, challenging the other person to extract value out of one’s efforts for self-improvement and self-actualization. Giuloni continues with an excerpt below to tackle a more appropriate definition of coaching.

Defining Terms

“Facilitating an individual’s search within themselves for the answers and resources they require to be limitless.”
– Michael Duffy

“Coaching in its truest sense is giving the responsibility to the learner to come up with their own answers.”
– Vince Lombardi

“Coaching is a powerful relationship for people who are making important changes in their lives.”
– Laura Whitworth in Co-Active Coaching

“Coaching is the art of facilitating the performance, learning and development of another.”
– Myles Downey

When we think about coaching from the perspective of these sample definitions, it becomes clear that coaching is an intentional and deliberate process designed to systematically help others understand themselves and take responsibility for making choices to support their own growth.

Notice the key words: process, system, (self-)understanding, (personal) responsibility, and growth. If those who hold themselves out to be coaches were acutely focused on these words and their implications, the term would become valuable once again. Now that we have some clarity around terminology, the next challenge is to examine what coaching looks like in practice. Consider Giuloni’s additional comments below:

(coaches):

Ask great questions…. and lots of them. Coaching is about unlocking what the other person knows, feels, wants. Skillful coaches have a seemingly unending array of questions at their disposal. Easy ones. Challenging ones. Interesting ones. Impossible ones. But all designed to help others reflect on and deepen their understanding of themselves and their options.

Listen exquisitely. Since questions are the currency of coaching, the real payoff comes with listening. The best coaches are genuinely curious and interested. They listen beyond the words – to the emotions, hopes, possibilities, and concerns. They keep track of what they’ve heard, tuck it away, and use it to continually build a deeper understanding of the other person…and they reflect that understanding back to the other person.

Hold the space for possibilities. In the presence of good coaches, more is possible.  The best coaches inspire and challenge others to grow by fundamentally knowing that it’s possible. They promote optimism and a sense of capability as they make change and help others find new ways forward.

When this perspective is held, performance of those being coached is improved. The generic, bland approach to engaging others on issues that matter gives way to a very defined (branded) process that delivers predictable results–like Kleenex!