Choose it or lose it. Company culture and the M word- Part 3.

Here’s a funny thing I’m noticing these days.

Some people want to lead, some people want to be in charge, some people want to make the big decisions.

Nobody wants to manage people.

I believe that to a great degree this is at the heart of all these questions about creating self-directing cultures. (See part 2)

Okay, but ‘Management’ exists for a reason. It’s famously analogous to coaching in sports. Management and coaching exist because business (or sport) often requires people to perform at a level beyond their natural inclination and comfort zone.

And Management (or coaching) is how you get them there.

Businesses that are the closest to the self-directing management model tend to be in specialized, highly profitable spaces with strong value propositions. In really competitive markets you need to fight in order to stay alive and succeed. That pushes things: Creativity, Organizations, Processes

and people.

And people generally don’t like to be pushed.


There is management.

‘Push’ is a strong word. Before you freak out, there are various flavors of ‘pushing.’

1. At one extreme are the top-down, ‘my-way-or-the-highway,’ extrinsically motivated, high punishment and high reward cultures. When the popular press uses ‘Big Business’ as a pejorative, or demonizing term, this is typically what they mean. Business as a ‘sell your soul to survive’ proposition.

These cultures are true-blue active management meccas. Hierarchy, reporting, performance reviews, time tracking and optimization , TPS reports — you name it.

These cultures ‘push’ by seeing employees as sort of soulless resources that they want to maximize. They tend to be impersonal, data-driven and optimizing. They are not big on vacation days, family leave, or taking time out to see your kid’s soccer game. If they have a monthly birthday celebration it’s because it has been calculated to yield higher productivity.

And productivity is their Holy Grail.

Sounds pretty inhuman and yucky to many people. However, there are some people that really like these types of environments and even thrive in them. Why? Because the lines are incredibly clear. These things are good. These other things are bad. There is no gray area. All you have to do is color inside the lines to be successful. Doesn’t matter what the picture actually looks like in the end.

And, while they push you while you are there you are generally left more alone at home. Well, sometimes.

In these environments it’s incredibly clear -even trumpeted- who’s best. Who’s closing the most deals, managing their hours, hitting their deadlines, etc. If you want to stand out, and are competitive, this might be your kind of place.

While this style of management seems to be fading, if your company is in a super-competitive environment: commodity based, extremely cost sensitive, has high variable labor costs, fast cycle times etcetera you may want to consider adding some of these elements in order to be competitive.

These are ‘fight to live’ companies.

2. The opposite extreme are the ‘Creative Team’ companies. These are kind of an outgrowth of the human potential movement and can be found in some creative, expert, and/or people-centric industries. They can sound a bit ‘new-agey’ with their emphasis on personal growth, helping you to achieve your potential, loose structure and ambiguous reporting. (As someone at one of these companies once told me, ‘I don’t report to Mary, I report through her.’) They are often led by founding teams that have strong social concerns (think Ben and Jerry’s).

At their extreme, these are passive/non- management meccas. Your basic Monty Python type of ‘autonomous collective.’

There are some great things about this kind of culture. An emphasis on creativity, a sense of engagement, a belief that you are to a degree charting your own course, and an intoxicating mix of independence with group validation. This is to say nothing of the massage days, paid tuition, free dog-walking, etc.

However, there are costs as well. Slow decisions, or it’s close cousin, consensus decision making. Diffused efforts and reversals. Groupthink. And a lot of ambiguity. You don’t color inside the lines — there aren’t any.

These companies are often very attractive to millenials. They are super-focused on employees (in fact, they eschew the word ‘employee’ for terms like ‘team member,’) They want everyone to be happy, to be family. They are all about the love.

However, they can be very frustrating places for people who are ambitious, or want to build their careers and become leaders. Because there is kind of an inability for the individual to be uniquely important to the outcome. There are no Star players in these orgs. Or, at least there’s not supposed to be. In the land of group decision making and group credit it can be hard to be a Rock Star.

3. Then there are the ‘Love it but do it’ hybrids.

Most companies in the tech space (certainly in the internet related spaces) espouse the ‘Creative Team’ model but temper it with a sort of drive and discipline born out of the competitive environment that they encounter in the Valley and Tech world. I call this the ‘Love it but do it’ model. They are nice, value employees, and manage with a lot of consensus. They have to be these things to attract the best and the brightest (who expect to be loved and included from day 1).

However, when they need to they can be breathtakingly autocratic and put the hammer down (think Apple). They live for metrics and know what everyone is REALLY doing every second. And even though you leave the facility you never stop working.

They can also become (ironically) ego-driven and problematic. A company with a loose structure, where everyone is nominally equal, can lead to either analysis paralysis or the mistaken belief that all ideas are equally appropriate and useful — which can lead to endless debates. They can stumble, be very inefficient and get caught up in various forms of feature-creep, pointless revisions and infighting.

They can also come up with world-changing technologies.

So, there’s that.

These types of cultures can be incredibly innovative. And once you have buy-in, startlingly productive. But, they aren’t for everyone. Some people just want to do their job and go home. Some want to be told what to do. As mentioned, some like clear lines.

At the moment this model seems to be the future in the tech industry and you see some version of it in many of the most successful companies out there these days: Google (er, Alphabet), Facebook, et al.

If you are a company in web-related tech (among others) you probably need to develop a culture with a lot of these characteristic just to be able to hire good people.

So, those are the main types I see these days and surely there is every kind of company in between and some other sorts that I’m missing.

One thing I think you’ll see is that at some level of size and complexity, no matter which model you choose, you are going to have to manage. We can look at the specifics of how to manage in various situations later. For now, I think it makes sense to recognize this eventuality and be thoughtful about the type of management culture you want for your firm. This is a significant consideration — one that I think the founders and execs should spend real time discussing.

Whatever way you go here are a few things (of many) to bare in mind.

  1. Culture is a tool. Sure, it’s a reflection of your identity, your values, etcetera but it also has utility. A culture that fits your ecosystem and goals is more likely to work than one that is antithetic to them so it pays to think about your business ecosystem early. If your customers are cost conscious you need to be cost conscious. If your partners live for the latest technology you can’t be a tech laggard. Works the other way too — prospective employees will only be attracted to you if have the kind of culture that fits their personal ethos. We never leave the schoolyard, and in business (at least) it pays to fit in. So, be authentic to who you are but make accommodations for your environment.
  2. Culture reflects the founders and execs. Anytime someone enters a new environment and they want to fit in they look and listen to leaders for clues as to how to behave, how to communicate, priorities and the like. And in start-up land, those leaders are the founders. Employees not only look to you for cultural clues, they model you. Do you take calls during meetings? Do you return e-mails at 3 AM? Do you dress like a slob? People want to be successful and know that you are the gatekeepers of success. The key is to recognize your influence and make conscious decisions about how you want the company to work.
  1. You get what you model. Do the execs disagree publicly? Show unity under fire? Air and resolve differences? Respect each other? Talk behind each others back? Whatever interpersonal dynamic you have will eventually make it’s way into your org. So pay attention to what you are broadcasting. And try to get someone involved who can give you honest feedback about how you are coming across and what you are implicitly ‘saying.’ You are a role model whether you like it or not.
  2. Keep ‘culture’ on the agenda. Even mega-successes like Amazon can get caught up in cultural problems. Recent press shows a startling difference between what Bezos thinks is going on and what others (at least some people) are experiencing. There is no finish line in business. You need to keep shoring up the foundations to keep things stable.
  3. Appropriately empower. Most companies have cultures that are CEO or Exec Team focused. This usually comes from the founders’ dynamic. Employees come up with ideas and they present them to the execs seeking approval. Sometimes the Exec Team is decisive and responsive. Sometimes not. Indecisive and unresponsive execs can unintentionally create the death-culture of ‘learned helplessness.’ You know, ‘Don’t do anything until I say it’s okay.’ types. This can lead to a ‘nothing I do really matters’ mindset in your employees and if that happens you’re doomed. The cure for this is to be decisive and to push responsibility and authority outward — but not indiscriminately. As previously mentioned, you need to recognize people’s abilities and limitations and empower accordingly. And need to recognize that you have not only final authority but also ultimate responsibility for not only your, but their, decisions.

It’s a tight-rope walk.

The founders’ dynamic is the origin of a company’s culture. You are creating the future — the life experience for potentially thousands of employees. And, while driving for a self-directing culture has advantages, at some point you are going to have to manage. With that in mind it’s probably worth making deliberate, considered decisions about who you want to be and the type of management culture that you want for your firm.

Hopefully these articles will help start that conversation.