We live in a world where organizations become entities onto themselves. We create them, breathe life into them, and then they evolve and outlast us. Companies have legal rights as entities, companies can sue you, a former employee. Companies have a power in their history and their brand greater than the collective power of the individuals that govern it. With this power, companies impact and shape the world in great and terrible ways.
Corporate interests underlie so many facets of how our society is governed and functions; I’ve always been fascinated about utilizing this power for good. We are making strides. Today, the existence of some combination of corporate social responsibility (CSR) programs, chief sustainability officers (CSO) and departments dedicated to sustainability, eco-friendly products and business units, is practically a given for major corporations (albeit the debate rages on whether companies are just greenwashing). And yet, as with any change, the pace is slow.
I decided to pursue a startup not only to build an innovative product, but a transformative company, both with a social impact goal in mind. Working as a consultant for three years in various corporate environments gave me a wealth of insight, and I hope to channel this experience in building a model organization. Though I’m still very early stage, it’s good to start thinking about the company now.
Below is a first draft of my organizational values (not ordered, and not entirely MECE). I’ve also included companies who have been inspirational in each element so far.
On being a good organization…
- [Fun and familial] Culture — Create culture (involving all the points on this list) because money and perks can always be beaten and because if 30% of our lives at spent at work, that should be a good 30%. Example: Annual world cup tournament at Bain
- Transparent—Limit secrecy in order to seek feedback early, drive accountability, and be a good entity that doesn’t do the Enron. Example: Public salaries at Buffer
- [Socially & environmentally] Sustainable — Build a business with social/ environmental consequences in mind; rather than architect band-aid solutions after the damage has been done. Example: Anti-Black Friday (celebrate what you own) at Patagonia (Perhaps not the greatest example, but in the for-profit world I find this to be challenging. I would have named some smaller food brands but for the fact that many are now owned by larger parent corporations for whom the social/ environmental mission is not core.)
On working within the organization…
- Generalist — Require T-model (and not just as lip service) where employees focus on their specialty but also engage substantially (perhaps 40% time?) in other functional areas, as a way to broaden ownership and accountability, minimize siloes, and increase intrinsic motivation (part of the reason why I’m coding my own prototype). Example: W. L. Gore & Associates, whose frequently lauded organization includes multiple values on this list
- Flat — Minimize egos and bureaucracy; give people freedom to create and do (but hold them accountable). Example: Getting rid of managers at Zappos
- Egalitarian—Recognize that no group of employees is more valuable than another. Example: Everyone takes turns being the receptionist at Method
On recruiting and hiring… Don’t have examples, feel free to suggest one!
- Quality over pedigree—Bring back head-hunting aspect of recruiting by understand that talent comes from every corner of the world, not just from top schools
- People over jobs—Design jobs for the talent you have, and in a way that helps those people grow and excel at what they do well. Today it seems we’re always focused on hiring people smarter than us because we care more about getting the job done the best/ fastest. But statistically it’s impossible to always hire smarter. Further, this adage can encourage some negative behaviors (e.g., a narrow definition of “smart”)
- Lifelong learning—Hire those who are curious and know they have more to learn, rather than anyone who thinks s/he is already the expert. Cultivate a culture where everyone is encouraged to mentor and teach someone else in something
On making decisions on the job... Examples: We do all of these at Bain pretty well
- Data-driven—Test everything, bring data (even if qualitative) to bear, and then make a decision
- Clear & accountable—Commit to optimizing for something before a decision (e.g., writing a blog in order to drive traffic). If you’re wrong, you won’t argue the “whys” and can focus on pivoting
- Prioritized—Prevent analysis paralysis (balance how data is used) by prioritizing everything
This blarticle was written in the context of building a product that helps people borrow occasional-use items (e.g., camping tents, electric drills) from their friends & neighbors. Check out the prototype here.