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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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.

 

Build Human Capital With Interpersonal Savvy

Relationships in business are super important. When tasks and goals are pursued without regard to the interpersonal collateral, it is tragic. Leaders who see human capital as their greatest asset are revered by those who serve alongside them. Those who run roughshod over others are despised–though they may see results from a Machiavellian style in the short run, they never get the voluntary commitment of others and, therefore, cannot take an organization as far.

Three person relationshipJeff Haden recommends the following best (business) relationship practices in an Inc article today:

1. Take the hit.

A customer gets mad. A vendor complains about poor service. Sometimes, whatever the issue and regardless of who is actually at fault, some people step in and take the hit. They’re willing to accept the criticism or abuse because they know they can handle it–and they know that maybe, just maybe, the other person can’t.

2. Step in without being asked.

It’s easy to help when you’re asked. Very few people offer help before they have been asked, even though most of the time that is when a little help will make the greatest impact. People who build extraordinary relationships pay close attention so they can tell when others are struggling. . .they come up with specific ways they can help. 

3. Answer the question that is not asked.

Where relationships are concerned, face value is usually without value. Often people will ask a different question than the one they really want answered. Behind many simple questions is often a larger question that goes unasked. People who build great relationships think about what lies underneath so they can answer that question, too.

4. Know when to dial it back.

Outgoing and charismatic people are usually a lot of fun… until they aren’t. People who build great relationships know when to have fun and when to be serious, when to be over the top and when to be invisible, and when to take charge and when to follow.

5. Prove they think of others.

People who build great relationships don’t just think about other people. They act on those thoughts. One easy way is to give unexpected praise. Take a little time every day to do something nice for someone you know, not because you’re expected to but simply because you can. 

6. Realize when they have acted poorly.

Very few people apologize before they are asked to–or even before anyone notices they should. People who take the blame, who say they are sorry and explain why they are sorry, who don’t try to push any of the blame back on the other person–those are people everyone wants in their lives, because they instantly turn a mistake into a bump in the road rather than a permanent roadblock.

7. Give consistently, receive occasionally.

In business terms that means connecting with people who can be mentors, who can share information, who can help create other connections. . .(also) The person who builds great relationships doesn’t think about what she wants; she starts by thinking about what she can give. 

8. Value the message by always valuing the messenger.

When someone speaks from a position of position of power or authority or fame it’s tempting to place greater emphasis on their input, advice, and ideas. People who build great relationships never automatically discount the message simply because they discount the messenger. They know good advice is good advice, regardless of where it comes from.

In short, taking the time to make much of relationships should be a priority. Doing so builds credibility with others that is huge when it comes time to pursue goals together. 

 

Help! Innovators Needed

One of the challenges of intrapreneurship is identifying key innovators within an organization. Despite efforts to instill a culture that champions everyone as an innovative thinker, we often find in consulting that executives want someone to whom they can look for innovation pace setting. The question often becomes how to determine who has the strongest innovation DNA. When I was enrolled in an MBA program at Elon, my instructor invited us to take a Creax assessment to analyze out ability to be creative in problem solving and idea commercialization. Last week, I ran across a blog post from my friend Jeffrey Phillips that discussed this very issue and how his firm, Ovo Innovation, approaches the challenge.

creative wordleJeffrey points out that many good innovators aren’t “mainstream” corporate types.  In fact, he argues that “they may occupy positions that aren’t exciting, or may be people who are interested in change and uncertainty, while the rest of the organization is fixated on efficiency.  In other words, some of your best innovators may be shunted to secondary positions because their insights and feedback seem like complaining about the status quo.” He then makes a series of observations about common misconceptions:

Good innovators aren’t necessarily:

  • The “Experts” – too often organizations assign innovation activities to the people who know the issue or problem exceptionally well.  But these individuals often rule out ideas and narrow the scope too quickly based on past experience.  Thecurse of knowledgeblinds many experts to opportunities, or the fact that knowledge of the past or expertise today doesn’t guarantee success tomorrow.
  • Prominent leaders.  Many good leaders achieved their roles through excellent financial prowess and are good at asking tough questions about profitability and cost.  Frequently these individuals struggle in innovation activities because the ROI is so uncertain, and they reduce the scope and possibilities to conform to their own financial models or expectations.
  • “Idea People”.  In any organization there are people who have ideas or who are very creative, but they may not be your best innovators.  Like Michael Keaton’s character in Night Shift they may record ideas (“feed the tuna fish mayonnaise”) but those ideas may not be valuable or practical or solve customer needs.

These observations are significant, because they demonstrate that there are number of desirable competencies that innovators have in common:

  • Deeply curious about how and why things work and how they can be better
  • Experimentive, willing to try things, make small tests
  • Comfortable with risk and ambiguity
  • Eager for change
  • Very empathetic to customer needs and market conditions
  • Not locked into the “way we do things”
  • Can look at problems from a new perspective or a “naive” viewpoint

In order to identify those key innovators, he recommends some different assessments:

The first we use is The Innovator’s DNA, an excellent book that calls out five characteristics of successful innovation leaders:  associating, questioning, experimenting, observing and networking.  

Next we use assessments like Foursight, which suggests that individuals have specific skills that are applicable at different phases in an innovation activity, from clarifying to ideating to developing and implementing.  This helps place the right people in the right task at the right time.

Next we assess the individual and their tolerance for risk, change and ambiguity.  Good innovators are comfortable with extending scope, doing new things, cannibalizing existing products, entering new markets. They are comfortable with ambiguity – not everything has to be perfectly understood or “black and white”.  They are often entrepreneurial, interested in new products or opportunities as opposed to supporting and sustaining the existing processes or products.

Hopefully, you can use these tools to help identify innovation talent in your organization!

 

Be Bold and Flexible In Leading Others

One of the challenges that leaders face is the need to customize their approach to individuals under their charge, at the same time as driving corporate performance. Far easier is it to try a singular approach–either one we’ve seen others before us model or one that is very comfortable. To be observant and empathetic enough to notice what others need, in what measures, and at what distinct moments delivered in ways that are point is a skill–particularly if you as a leader are able to do this consistently for many who look to you for guidance, direction, and nurture.

Nick Petrie from the Center for Creative Leadership wrote, “Hindsight does not lead to foresight since the elements and conditions of the system can be in continual flux”? Understanding what we should have done in a particular situation does not, as Petrie indicates, bode well necessarily for interacting with others going foreward. 

Jane Perdue, in a blog post last Friday, says that “it’s time to hang up on heroic leadership — the notion that a single person has all the answers — and embrace a new orientation to leading yourself and others: flexibility.” She quotes Scott Yorkovich, adjunct faculty at Capella University, in defining  flexible leadership as the “ability to receive and process diverse and potentially conflicting sources of information, the openness to implement a variety of strategic solutions, and the ability to adapt to changing conditions.”

Perdue  writes that “getting comfortable with ambiguity is a must in a turbulent business environment filled with perpetual transitions. Having a boundary-spanning mindset is crucial for successful personal and professional leadership.” She recommends the tips below to assist in developing a leadership style that is adaptive and connecting:

contrarian

  • Be the water. The past’s linear lessons have questionable applicability in today’s hyper-connected, technology-driven, multiple-generations business world. The mental scripts we’ve written based on our past experiences can limit our ability to think and respond creatively, a performance gap that can render us obsolete. Flexible leaders are fluid — managing to drive change and innovation while still preserving a core of stability.
  • Transcend ego. Agile leaders naturally think less of “me” and more of “we,” having long ago abandoned command-and-control power trips. As Ben Dattner, adjunct professor at New York University, advises us, “Twenty-first century leaders might benefit from thinking of themselves as being in the center of a web rather than on top of a pyramid.”
  • Keep the number of rules, policies and procedures to a minimum. Four-inch-thick policy binders foster rigidity and stifle innovation. Flexible leaders know when to go by the book and when to take a risk. “If you want to encourage more risk-taking in your company or your unit, you’ll need to reduce the conflicting signals and create an environment where the benefits of taking a risk outweigh the costs,” writes Ron Ashkenas, an organizational transformation consultant.
  • Embrace the contrarian. We’re rewarded for and conditioned to rely on our strengths, a default position that sometimes prompts us to marginalize ideas generated by those with whom we disagree or discount. The trouble is that over-reliance on a strength can become a weakness. Flexible leaders seek out those with alternate points of views and listen closely to what they have to say before things go wrong.
  • Think paradoxically. Managing contradictions and opposites are the power breakfast of flexible leaders. One’s leadership focus may be on task completion, yet there is still an understanding that building and maintaining relationships is equally important. Flexible leaders are both strong and vulnerable, provide both structure and managed chaos, and value hard and soft skills equally.