Pleasing Everyone is No Laughing Matter

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

Being an only child for most of my life and usually on a farm far away from other kids, I was left with few options for entertainment. One was playing in ditches and roaming about with my dogs (and a goat that thought he was a dog). The other was reading the classics. One in particular that intrigued me was an old copy of Aesop’s fables. I loved skipping around through this book, trying to figure out the meaning or lesson delivered in each fable (many, I never figured out). It wasn’t until I was recently reading Walter Isaacson’s biography of Benjamin Franklin that one of my favorites came rushing back to the front of my noggin.

While Isaacson never mentions that the story referenced by Franklin was an Aesop fable (perhaps he didn’t know? doubtful), it most certainly is and provides a clear lesson to remember: If you try to make everyone happy, you will make no one happy.

It’s a lesson that all leaders of people should hold close to their decision-making process. So many times I have seen leaders attempt to fulfill the holy grail of decision making, “I’ll just make everyone happy.” It will never happen. It’s simply human nature. It’s not a bad thing either, it’s what makes us a unique species. Otherwise, imagine how boring we would be if everyone agreed on everything. A monotonous and calculated world of blandness, no thanks.

So instead of considering what could make everyone happy, leaders should focus on what aligns with their organization’s purpose, guiding principles, and vision for the future. If those things are focused on providing your associates with meaningful work and providing the world with a valuable product or service, then it’s easy. Where it gets tricky is when the vision becomes clouded with concepts of shareholder return, strategy based on finance, and ultimately, not about the employee or customer. These former concepts are dated leftovers of a bygone era, one in which employees didn’t have access to information, weren’t as educated, and before the influence of technology provided everyone in the world with an idea of how they could do better. Like start their own business. be

As I’ve spent more and more time with startup founders and entrepreneurs, one pattern has been almost universally consistent. It’s the notion that there needs to be an intense focus on one or two really important concepts or goals. That focus, time and time again, tends to be on providing a great place to work for really smart and engaged people. For they know that if they have amazingly talented associates who truly care about what they are doing to make the organization successful then the customers, shareholders and community will also be satisfied. It’s the ultimate virtuous cycle and it always starts with talent.

Æsop. (Sixth century B.C.) Fables. The Harvard Classics. 1909–14. The Man, the Boy, and the Donkey
A MAN and his son were once going with their Donkey to market. As they were walking along by its side a countryman passed them and said: “You fools, what is a Donkey for but to ride upon?”
So the Man put the Boy on the Donkey and they went on their way. But soon they passed a group of men, one of whom said: “See that lazy youngster, he lets his father walk while he rides.”
So the Man ordered his Boy to get off, and got on himself. But they hadn’t gone far when they passed two women, one of whom said to the other: “Shame on that lazy lout to let his poor little son trudge along.”
Well, the Man didn’t know what to do, but at last he took his Boy up before him on the Donkey. By this time they had come to the town, and the passers-by began to jeer and point at them. The Man stopped and asked what they were scoffing at. The men said: “Aren’t you ashamed of yourself for overloading that poor Donkey of yours — you and your hulking son?”
The Man and Boy got off and tried to think what to do. They thought and they thought, till at last they cut down a pole, tied the Donkey’s feet to it, and raised the pole and the Donkey to their shoulders. They went along amid the laughter of all who met them till they came to Market Bridge, when the Donkey, getting one of his feet loose, kicked out and caused the Boy to drop his end of the pole. In the struggle the Donkey fell over the bridge, and his fore-feet being tied together he was drowned.
“That will teach you,” said an old man who had followed them:
“PLEASE ALL, AND YOU WILL PLEASE NONE.”
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