Helping the Chronically Overworked Find Life Balance

Noogler or Mini-Me? Who Will Thrive In Your Company’s Culture?

Picture from B roll

Noogler in New York Office

Chapter 3: The Real American Idol part 11

Who gets ahead in the corporate world?  How often is it the smartest, most qualified person, and how often is it someone picked due to connections or politics?  Of course it’s not an either or, but the higher someone goes in the company, the more the soft skills matter. One person’s style may work very well in one company, and be a flop in another.  As important as it is to learn to “flex your style” I think it equally important to understand how inflexible corporate culture can be, so you can find the right fit for you.

So how does a particular culture evolve?  It starts with the founders, and is propagated through continuing hires over time.  Google, for example, is extremely deliberate about the type of people they are looking for, and has built an interview process looking to find “Googleyness.”

We want to get a feel for what makes you, well, you. We also want to make sure this is a place you’ll thrive, so we’ll be looking for signs around your comfort with ambiguity, your bias to action and your collaborative nature.[i]

New hires (aka Nooglers) go through a specific series of steps to become acclimated to Google, which sometimes even wearing a fraternity pledge style hat.

While Google takes great pains to foster an anti-hierarchical culture, that is not always the case in the corporate world.  Many managers are looking for the Mini-Me.  Mini-Me was a character in the Austin Powers movies, a clone of the villain Dr. Evil.  Mini Me is a favorite, because he rarely speaks and just mimics the expressions of Dr. Evil.  Funny stuff, and I laughed when a senior manager used the analogy to describe the “big boss.”  In her words

Within a business unit, there were favorites based on behavior [that come from the] guy at the top.  If you fit what he liked, you did well.  He didn’t appreciate diversity.  He wanted the Mini Me, everyone [to be] like him exactly.

Whether your company is looking for its version of the Googler, or allows pockets of Mini-Me, the general point is the same – a corporate culture will select for a certain kind of person, perhaps more accurately a certain kind of behavior.

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What Is The Impact of Short-Term Investors On Everyday Business Decisions?

Chapter 3: The Real American Idol part 10

In the last post, I discussed the values of Chick-Fil-A, a private company whose corporate values reflect the Cathy family’s interpretation of Christian values.  In his book The Loyalty Effect, Frederick Reishheld explains the impact of company ownership on its culture.  Public companies are much more prone to short term, numbers-based decision making than private ownership.  “The average public company in the United States now suffers investor churn of more than 50% per year.”[i]  In other words, half of a companies stock will be bought and sold in less than 12 months, and those owners only care about short term results since they will not be owners a year from now.

Such transient corporate owners are in a position to demand changes that increase short-term profits.  For example, layoffs and cuts to R&D spending are positive for the balance sheet, but may or may not be the correct prescription for long-term growth.[i]

It is against this headwind of numbers-based drivers that each of us in the corporate world must contend as we make decisions day to day.  Sound like a stretch?  Not to “Buzz” a former HR VP.

I came home after a layoff of hundreds and hundreds of people.  4th round.  I told my wife I feel like a collaborator in a Nazi concentration camp.  We could have made other choices, like a 15% pay cut and lay off half as many people.  ‘You can’t do that, blab la bla.’  I got sick of that moral choice of depriving people of their jobs, and being in charge of doing it.

Buzz was operating at the intersection of his people-first value system and the company imperative to save money.  I am not in a position to judge whether this cost savings was “necessary” for the survival of the company, but in many cases it is.  Layoffs are an unpleasant reality of the business world.  I think Buzz was uncomfortable because he felt they were excessive.  The answer for him was to leave that company and find another environment.  Another company may have elected to follow his preferred approach of a salary cut, as Hewlett-Packard did a few years ago.[ii]

This is a theme we will see again and again in the book – much of what happens in the corporate world is beyond your power to control.  Once you accept this, you will be in a better position to find a solution that works for you. And no, it doesn’t necessarily mean leaving the corporate world.

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[i] The Loyalty Effect:  the Hidden Force Behind Growth, Profits, and Lasting Value. By Frederick Reichheld.  Harvard business School Press (1996) p. 153

[ii] HP to cut salaries as profits decline; CEO takes hit, too. Hurd to take 20% pay cut as Hewlett-Packard looks to lower costs after weak Q1, By Patrick Thibodeau . February 19, 2009. Retrieved August 14, 2012.

Chick-Fil-A’s “Golden Rule Approach To Business”

Chapter 3: The Corporation, The Real American Idol Part 9

In the previous post, I argued that companies that incorporate elements of people-first values into their culture have a competitive advantage.  In his book The Loyalty Effect, Frederick Reichheld, head of Bain Consulting’s loyalty practice, and inventor of the Net Promoter Score, has built a career showing that businesses that put people first have better financial returns, at least in certain industries.  Reishheld argues that often a loyalty culture, i.e. one that values long term relationships with employees, customers, and investors is a productive business strategy.  For example, he shows that State Farm Insurance has an advantage over its competitors because it has found ways to retain agents longer, and these older agents bring in more business[i].

Ironically (given the current controversy), The Loyalty Effect paints a very favorable view of Chick-Fil-A for its people-first values, especially with regard to the way it compensates managers and employees in a way that encourages low-turnover.  He goes so far as to say that Chick-Fil-A’s takes a “Golden Rule approach to business.” He calls the founding CEO Truett Cathy (father of current CEO Dan Cathy) “so earnest a Christian that all Chick Fil A stores are closed on Sundays which makes their financial success all the more impressive.[ii]”  I agree with Reishheld’s further observation, that being closed may be an advantage for attracting talent that doesn’t want to work 7 days a week.  I would add that because the Sunday closure is a global company rule, no one person can gain competitive advantage for putting in the extra hours on a Sunday.

Reishheld argues that the financial advantages of a loyalty culture are not universal – it depends very much on the type of industry.  “Commodity suppliers like oil companies and certain high-tech businesses where technological breakthroughs can overwhelm customer relationships are examples of companies were loyalty economics can make a difference, but probably not a decisive difference.[iii]

This resonates with me big time.  In the genomics industry, where I worked, the dollars followed the latest technology, and seemed to be largely independent of how well those companies treated either their customers or employees.  In fact, I think the technology superiority bred a certain arrogance, which came back to haunt the companies when the next technology came down the road.

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[i] The Loyalty Effect:  the Hidden Force Behind Growth, Profits, and Lasting Value. By Frederick Reichheld.  Harvard business School Press (1996) p. 127-128.

[ii] The Loyalty Effect:  the Hidden Force Behind Growth, Profits, and Lasting Value. By Frederick Reichheld.  Harvard business School Press (1996) p. 111  It is unfortunate that Cathy’s people-first values have a common shortcoming.  In his mind, they seem to apply only to certain people.

[iii] The Loyalty Effect:  the Hidden Force Behind Growth, Profits, and Lasting Value. By Frederick Reichheld.  Harvard business School Press (1996) p. 306

When Do Shared Values Become a Competitive Advantage?

Chapter 3: The Real American Idol Part 8

In the last post, I used the McKinsey 7S model to explain the importance of shared company values to corporate culture.  Tom Peters’ book “In Search of Excellence” introduced the 7S model to the broader business community when it was first published in 1982.  Peters argues (as do many others) that strong company values give a competitive business advantage.  The top companies “create broad, uplifting, shared culture,” which allows them to  “ extract extraordinary contributions from very large numbers of people” because they share “ a sense of highly valued purpose.[i]”  In other words, when people really believe in what they are doing, they work harder.

This rings true for me.  People I interviewed felt that working in the Biotech industry is “motivating in itself” because of the direct connection to improving human health.  I was, however, surprised to learn that people in the computer industry find “solving customer problems” to be an analogous type of motivation.

When people described their best work experiences, often they pointed to a time when everyone in the company was aligned around a clear set of goals.  Notice the emotion-laden words as a research VP describes her best work experiences.

There were stages in my job where I loved my work.  I would get in early, I would stay late, I thoroughly enjoyed it.  I thought I was making a contribution and it all felt right to me.  I thought about what made it good.   I was really clear in my scientific heart we had strengths to address what we were going after.  What I knew as my training as a scientist, and the company had resources that really felt like we were aligned with the goals of the company.

Shared values have an additional benefit on the practical level – they facilitate decision making.  According to Peters, the Excellent companies did not need detailed procedures because “people way down the line know what they are supposed to do in most situations because the handful of guiding values is crystal clear.” In contrast, Peters sites the difficulty of making decisions at a large company put together by a series of mergers.  “The top people are inundated with trivia because there are no cultural norms.”  Underperforming companies like this can also have a strong culture, but the focus tends to be on politics or “the numbers,” rather than on people or products.[ii] Peters argues that these companies do not have strong values.  I disagree – there are strong values, but the values are pointed in a different direction.

What differentiates the values of the companies classified as Excellent when compared to the lower performing companies?  The Excellent companies put people first.

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[i] In Search Of Excellence: Lessons From America’s Best-Run Companies.  Thomas J Peters and Robert H. Waterman Jr. Harper and Row (1982) p. 51.

[ii] In Search Of Excellence: Lessons From America’s Best-Run Companies.  Thomas J Peters and Robert H. Waterman Jr. Harper and Row (1982) p. 76.

What Are The Shared Values In Your Organization?

McKinsey 7S Model

Chapter 3: The Corporation, The Real American Idol Part 7 – UPDATED 8/10

As we have seen in the previous chapters, idolatry goes beyond the literal definition of statue worship to include excessive devotion and/or blind adoration for an entity, idea, or force of nature.  Moreover, this “idol worship” brings with it adoption of a value system other than the universal value system espoused by the Golden Rule*. (More on Universal Values here.)  Value systems are important because they define the accepitble boundaries of human behavior.  Corporate idolatry, then, has something to do with the adoption of a value system that permits a different set of behaviors than those permitted by The Golden Rule.

In the corporate world, the whole concept of values gets muddy because many corporations have a written set of positive “values” that frankly are more slogan than substance[i].  If you are wondering “What Are The Shared Values In Your Organization?” look at what people do, not what they say. True values are what drive actual behavior, and they can be positive or negative. I find the McKinsey 7S framework particularly relevant model for organizational behavior.  It categorizes 7 elements that together categorize a company.  (See the image).  Shared values are placed in the center because they touch and define the boundaries of all other aspects of the business, just as personal values touch and define the boundaries of behavior in a person.  One of the biggest implications of 7S is that real change in an organization will not happen unless the shared values of the company change.  Let me give you an example.

I interviewed multiple people from a Silicon Valley company about its transition a few years ago as its revenue surpassed $250 million dollars annually.  The company had become large enough that the ad-hoc decision making was no longer effective, and product development was impeded by political infighting.  The company sought to solve the problem through systems and staff.  It hired a consulting company to deploy a new product development governance system.  The system worked beautifully for a year – the product launches were streamlined, and groundbreaking.  Customers were happy, revenues were through the roof, and the company was considered best in class by Wall Street.

But it didn’t last.  The executive running product development was demoted, and soon left the company.  Within a year or two product development once again political and ineffective, and revenues suffered.  Why did this happen?  From the perspective of someone who was caught in the trenches at the time, it made no sense and wasn’t rational. In the context of shared values, it does.

The values of the organization, (propagated by the founder/CEO) did not reward operational issues, or believe in customer feedback.  The CEO had a certain vision of the world, and thought development resources should be concentrated on pushing the core technology, as opposed to the usability features requested by customers.  And his vision was shared by a significant portion of the executive team, who were hired and promoted for that very reason.  There was a mythical belief that all the company needed to do was to create more powerful hardware and the customers would love it.

In summary, there was a disconnect between the company’s shared values and the new process.  The shared values won. 

Note: This post is an excerpt from Busting Your Corporate Idol: Self Help for the Chronically Overworked, a 5 Star Amazon Best Seller in the Work Life Balance Category. Learn more.

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* Treat others as you would like to be treated in a similar circumstance.

[i] What Do Corporate Values Really Mean? Published on February 7, 2010 by Ray Williams in Wired for Success retrieved August 12, 2012