Engagement in the Start-up World; an Unconscious Experience

This is a series of articles exploring the differences between big corporate culture and the start-up world.

Every man is the creature of the age in which he lives; very few are able to raise themselves above the ideas of the times.

I recently had lunch with a friend. Well, really, he’s someone my millennial wife calls one of my “old bike friends”. We are on the same master’s bike racing team, which makes us a different kind of friend. It’s a connection made through suffering (and I mean really suffering, strange I know). You don’t really get a chance to chat while training, so you try to do that off the bike. What’s interesting about this teammate is that he also happens to be a mid-40’s CEO of a multi-billion dollar organization and a generally good dude. As our conversation flowed from bikes to “kits” and then ultimately, to work. Mainly bikes and kits though.(FYI, kits are those tight uniforms, that only cyclists think are cool)

Cool Kits.

We were speaking about the research I’ve been doing around start-up culture and what I’m calling the “new ideology workforce” and he expressed concerns around having engaged talent in his organization. That’s not that surprising, as every smart CEO should be concerned with acquiring and engaging top talent. What was surprising though was his disclosure that he had spent time visiting one of the local start-up hubs, Atlanta Tech Village, attending their events and observing. Why? Because he’s interested in what makes that start-up world attractive to talented and engaged young people. Here’s what I told him I have seen so far.

In the employees and founders that I have interviewed, regardless of location or industry, all appear to represent a high level of what I classify as “unconscious engagement.” When asked specifically about the concept of engagement or whether it’s even on their radar, they simply stare back at me in a way similar to my Belgian Malinois dog (is he confused, annoyed, or going to bite me?). This reaction reflects the fact that in the start-up world, “engagement” is not a conscious initiative because it’s a natural phenomena. It’s a natural thing that just happens, like breathing. As one interviewee best summed it up, “Belief is why we are here. Otherwise, why would I be in this environment? Despite its cool factor, it’s is really unstable, which can be super stressful.”


So with that in mind, here’s three of the sources of unconscious engagement I identified so far:

I’m a Part of “This Thing”

Universally, everyone interviewed from 22 year old developers to Gen X founders have an unwavering belief that this culture they are a part of is what will drive progress and innovation in the future, not large enterprise (and I exclude Google and it’s cousins from “large enterprise”). While there are certainly very large organizations driving significant innovation today, it’s simply not getting credit or cool points. These fantastic commercials from GE pretty much sum it up.

This perception appears to drive an earnest feeling that by being a part of this world, or this culture, no matter how successful or relevant your organization actually is or will be, you are a part of what will make the future a better place. Imagine 40 years from now living in a much different world and telling your grandkids, “yeah, I worked for a tech start-up during the great days of innovation.” That would be pretty cool. No one has actually said that to me, but I’m certain had I proposed it, their would have been agreement. It’s quite refreshing and totally understandable how this could be a motivating factor. Even more so, it’s correct.

Because, the Purpose

Large enterprise is now starting to catch on to the concept of “Purpose”, whereas in startup culture it’s a universally understood concept. For large entities, this means transitioning from a mantra of Mission (i.e. take that hill, be the market leader, crush our competitors, etc.) to a deeper, more self-reflecting contemplation of why they exist. And “shareholder value” can’t be that purpose, at least if you want to be attractive to today’s innovative workforce. I can tell you from experience, when you tell your employees that they are working in order to increase shareholder value, you can literally see them lose belief in what they are doing.

Now while it’s a commonly understood concept, I have found that many who operate in the startup world fail to articulate the entity’s purpose beyond “making the world a better place” or “creating something beautiful” (but don’t market it!). It’s a hard sell for a member of a fintech company to simply state they are out to make the world a better place than it is today. Now maybe their purpose is to provide individuals with access to financing at a much more desirable rate so they can afford the necessities of life, but that kind of clear articulation hasn’t always been hammered out yet. Although, with purpose on the forefront of so many individual’s mind, I’m certain that it will be. Sometimes it’s as simple as “We just are trying too solve a really difficult problem and everyone wants to do it badly”, as one founder articulated.

In it Together

When I entered the workforce in the late 90’s as a Gen Xer there were very few people my age in my company (which had ~5,000 employees). The population of Gen X is very small and even more so, older Gen Xer’s have very little in common with those at the end of that generation. It’s like the difference between listening to Def Leppard versus Nirvana in high school. A LOT changed from ’88 to ’94. So with that in mind, there was virtually no generational bonding in the workplace. That’s basically the opposite of what has happened with the Millennial generation. They are an extremely large group (population wise) and regardless of the expanse of years, the experiences have been amazingly consistent, primarily due to the influence of technology in their life.

So what this means in the start-up world, you are working with a majority (if not all) people close to your own age, who care about the same things as you, and share the relatively same belief system (Kanye is bad, T Swift is good — no matter what she does!). Your parents did a lot of awesome things for you, like your laundry, but didn’t explain things like “mortgages” and let you graduate college with zero credit history. From what I’ve observed, having this level of connection in the workforce fosters a special kind of team chemistry. One that typically takes years and years for teams to foster in traditional large enterprise organizations.

That connection and the team chemistry that comes along with it, lends itself to an environment where effort is not “expected”. Instead, it just happens because you care about others you work with there. When you care about them, you care about the organization because it’s in everyone’s best interest that we all succeed. That in turn fosters trusting relationships, because “we are all in it together.”

The issue and element of trust is very important and the lynchpin to what makes this culture so successful. How trust is developed, how it’s used and nurtured is a topic all in itself that I’ll address in a separate post.

In the mean time, I’ll keep chipping away at what makes this world a special place to work right now. And keep an eye out for skinny guys in their mid-40’s hanging around your startup hub. You should introduce yourself, you never know when you might meet the CEO of big company who just wants to chat. If so, make sure you ask him about his kit.

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