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Golden Oldies: Ducks In A Row: Cultural Support

Monday, August 15th, 2016

It’s amazing to me, but looking back on more than a decade of writing I find posts that still impress, with information that is as useful now as when it was written. Golden Oldies is a collection of what I consider some of the best posts during that time.

For decades, ‘culture’ didn’t get much respect. Many managers considered it ephemeral; smoke and mirrors served up by consultants focused more on their bottom line than their client’s. Today, the critical importance of company culture is a generally accepted management subject. However, creating a great culture isn’t enough; it needs a solid infrastructure to sustain it and keep it flexible as the company grows. That said, the most important action any boss takes is found in the final sentence of this post. Read other Golden Oldies here.

ducks_in_a_rowWhen you build an edifice that you want to withstand the stresses of everyday living as well as crisis and catastrophe it’s important to include structural supports in the design.

The same is true for corporate culture and I call them “infrastructure building blocks” or IBBs.

There are three categories of IBBs—philosophy, attitude/style, and policy. There are many things that can be included, but here is a list of the most basic ones, some are fairly self-explanatory, others include commentary and links where possible.

The philosophy category includes

  • Fairness: pay parity, merit promotions, egalitarian policies,
  • Open communications: not a technology function, but a part of MAP.
  • Business 101: basic information to reduce/eliminate naiveté, fuzzy or rose-colored views of the company’s business.
  • No surprises
  • Pragmatism

The attitude/style category includes:

  • Manager vigilance: a constant awareness of what is going on and a willingness to deal with the reality of it immediately.
  • Management-by-walking-around

The policy category is the concrete expression of the Philosophy and Attitude/Style IBBs. Just as the Preamble to the Constitution delineates the doctrines underlying it, each Policy IBB supports one or more of the IBBs described above.

Policy IBBs should be reasonably broad—macro rather than micro—since they support a flexible process, not ossified bureaucracy. They are your most potent infrastructure—the most tangible and, therefore, the hardest to corrupt or ignore, but also the most dangerous, because they can turn into bureaucracy in the blink of an eye if you’re not careful.

  • Business Mission Statement (BMS)
  • Cultural Mission Statement (CMS)
  • Dual Mission Statement (DMS)
  • Open-door
  • Management by Box: actually a way to set your people free
  • Dual Ladder Career Path: a series of hands-on positions that equate straight across the board with management positions.
  • Hiring process: transparent and painless and easy to use for both candidates and hiring managers.
  • Stock bonus plan (or similar)
  • Sales incentives
  • Reviews: Done correctly, they encourage personal growth, make negative behavior much harder to conceal and can even act as a screening tool during interviews.
  • Surveys: useful for discovering problems, attitudes, product directions, company standing, etc. as perceived by employees and selected outsiders.

One caveat when implementing these and other approaches: lead by example; both managers and workers will do as you do, not as you say.

Image credit: flickr

Entrepreneurs: Culture Fit is Critical

Thursday, May 7th, 2015

https://www.flickr.com/photos/bicyclehabitat/4749855117/Years ago, Neil Senturia, CEO of Black Bird Ventures posted his thoughts about CEOs, hiring and culture.

“Building a team is the key to creating a successful start up—picking the people who will fit into the culture. The CEO’s most important job is hiring well and being the visionary and model for the culture that you want in your company. There are great players but what wins Super Bowls are great teams.’

While everyone talks about building teams, the importance of teams, etc., bosses continue to hire skill sets without enough thought or rationalizing as to whether the candidates possessing them fit the culture.

It often takes the threat of a team revolt to force them to pass on candidates with great skills who obviously don’t fit.

Culture is high enough on the radar now that most entrepreneurs know that the wrong hire can derail their culture, but they still have a problem passing on badly needed skills.

It still takes guts to make the correct decision for the long-term in a world that runs on short-term.

It’s never an easy choice, but it is one that will pay off for years to come.

I wrote Don’t Hire Turkeys! Use Your Culture as an Attraction, Screening, and Retention Tool and Turkey-Proof Your Company 15 years ago and it’s just as true today as it was then.

Your culture is the sieve through which all people should pass—without contortions or rationalizations—preferably aligned with and passionate about it, but at the very least synergistic.

The keynotes of a culture are:

  • Consciously developed – Cultures happen with or without thought. Those that just happen are the easiest to twist and manipulate.
  • Flexible – Just as trees bend in strong winds and buildings are designed to sway in an earthquake, so you want to build your culture to withstand pivots, economic storms and the winds of change.
  • Scalable – To grow as the company grows requires a deep understanding of the values that are cultural bedrock vs. trim and accessories.
  • Sustainable – Although originally stemming from the CEO, at some point the culture must become the property of the employees if they’re going to support it.

None of this predicts what the culture will actually be, that’s a function of the CEO’s values and MAP (mindset, attitude, philosophy)™.

The important point here is to hire with your eyes wide open, so you don’t end up with a round peg trashing your square hole.

Ducks in a Row: the Reality of Culture

Tuesday, October 14th, 2014


Washing dishes for Jeff was grueling, greasy work. But then again, making a pizza, or driving a truck, or baking a cake, or any of countless other jobs are not always enjoyable in themselves, either. Out of all the lessons I learned from that guy in the Pizza Hut tie, maybe the biggest is that any job can be the best job if you have the right boss. Danial Adkison

People work for people, not companies.

People quit people, not companies.

They accept positions because of the culture and leave when it changes.

Bosses interpret company culture; they improve or pervert it; they add/subtract/polish/tarnish it.

What bosses don’t do is pass it on intact and untouched.

Flickr image credit: Susanne Nilsson

Entrepreneurs: are Tech Skills Mandatory?

Thursday, September 25th, 2014


Do you need to code to manage software developers?

Do you need to know circuit design to manage hardware engineers?

If you answered ‘yes’ then you’ve bought into one of the most common myths of management.

It exists because people are commonly promoted within the department in which they were originally hired.

But not always.

Neha Sampat is not only a woman, but also CEO of cloud software firm Raw Engineering, where, among other things, she runs a team of web developers.

She is not technical and certainly doesn’t code.

She attribute her success to the culture she’s built and her attitude towards her people.

“If you have the right people and the right personalities on a team, it’s magic. The smartest thing I have done in my career has been to surround myself with people who are experts in areas I know nothing about.”

Of course, that requires being secure enough in your own skills and hiring choices that you don’t need to be the smartest person on the team.

The same applies to KG Charles-Harris Charles-Harris (who, as his time permits, contributes here). He is a serial entrepreneur and founder/CEO of Quarrio, which just won the 2014 Overall Winner & Most Disruptive awards given by the Software & Information Industry Association (SIIA) in the “NextGen” Big Data category.

KG puts enormous time and effort into hiring the right people, then gets out of their way and trusts them to get the job done.

Or as Sampat says,

“I am very deliberate about expressing how much I value people’s knowledge and their presence on my team.” (…) “My job is to be an enabler and to give my people the resources they need to make things happen.”

Good management and communication skills are as crucial to success as good coding—perhaps even more so in the long run.

Flickr image credit: Juhan Sonin

Mindfulness Means “Look Up”

Wednesday, May 7th, 2014

It’s likely you’ve seen this video already, but I’m posting it anyway because it says what I’ve been saying forever.

Its focus is living mindfully, although none of the commenters I scanned through seemed aware of the concept.

Some agreed, while some thought it was “self-righteous” bullsh*t,” but if that’s true then the teachings of Confucius, Aristotle, Plato, Buddha, Jesus and all the saints, prophets and rabbis also qualify as self-righteous BS. (I found it amusing how many of the nay-sayers fell back on four-letter words to express themselves—probably the extent of their vocabularies.)

Mindfulness is a conscious way to live life and applies extremely well when building company culture.

YouTube credit: Gary Turk

Entrepreneurs: a Culture of Openness

Thursday, March 6th, 2014


Many founders talk about the desire to build truly open cultures.

Then they start adding exceptions and caveats, especially when it comes to compensation—whether dollars or stock.

Sharing compensation information is usually discouraged and discussing stock options or salary may even be considered a firing offense.

While there are startups opting for openness, what happens over time?

Based on Whole Foods nearly 30-year trial salary openness can work.

Whole Foods co-CEO John Mackey introduced the policy in 1986, just six years after he co-founded the company. In the book, he explains that his initial goal was to help employees understand why some people were paid more than others. If workers understood what types of performance and achievement earned certain people more money, he figured, perhaps they would be more motivated and successful, too.

It takes solid planning and a culture with a real commitment to transparency and developing people over time to make it work.

By making it’s financials, including profitability, available to all it employees, so they could see not just what everyone was paid, but where else the money went, Whole Foods created a true feeling of ownership along with the knowledge that promotion was available and the support to make it happen.

The company’s openness even drew recognition from the Federal Government.

In fact, in the late 1990s the widespread availability of so much detailed financial data led the SEC to classify all of the company’s 6,500 employees as “insiders,”

Building openness into your culture requires support and full buy-in from your senior staff.

And that means being willing to pass on people who have the right skills, but not the right attitude.

Flickr image credit: Paul Downey

Ducks in a Row: Good Culture is a Habit

Tuesday, March 4th, 2014


Culture is recognized as the “make or break” for companies of all sizes, so it’s logical for bosses at all levels to look for insights on creating and retaining a winning culture.

Zappos and Southwest are often held up as icons of good culture, but they also know that sustaining their culture doesn’t happen by accident—it takes consistent hard work at all levels.

They know that certain behaviors and actions must be actively managed, as well as made visible to the organization at large.

Companies with the most effective culture seek out and continually reinforce what Charles Duhigg, author of The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business (Random House, 2012), calls “keystone habits.” A keystone habit, Duhigg has noted, is “a pattern that has the power to start a chain reaction, changing other habits as it moves through an organization.” Companies that recognize and encourage such habits stand to build cultures with influence that goes beyond employee engagement and directly boosts performance.

The inherent problem that accounts for why these cultures are rarely created and, when they are, don’t have the lasting power bosses would like to see is a long way from rocket science.

The problem is, in fact, extremely simple.

Culture is more talked than walked.

Good cultures require well-thought-out, planned conscious effort.

And not just at conception, but for as long as they exist.

And sustained, well thought-out, planned, conscious effort requiring ongoing hard work is not the hallmark of most companies from startups through the Fortune 50.

Flickr image credit: David DeHetre

Entrepreneurs: Do You Really Want to be a CEO?

Thursday, January 30th, 2014


Founders love styling themselves as CEOs.

(I did it too, back when I started RampUp Solutions.)

It says you are in charge; the boss.

Plus, it sounds cool.

As CEO, you are responsible for formulating and articulating the company’s vision to employees, investors and the media.

Heady stuff.

You are also directly responsible for creating a winning culture, developing viable financial plans, instituting a solid hiring process and a wide range of other administrative actions.

No matter what happens—good, bad, or indifferent—you are the person held responsible for everything by the board, investors, employees and media.

As the company grows there are more business and human headaches meaning less time for hands-on creativity.

CEO isn’t a 70, 80 or even 100 hour a week job; it’s a 168 hour, 24/7 job.

It’s not the right job or even a good job for many founders.

Founders need to understand that giving up the CEO role can be the smartest, wisest, and most perceptive decision they will ever make (just ask Brad Feld).

Flickr image credit: TechCocktail

If the Shoe Fits: Destroying Your Team

Friday, April 19th, 2013

A Friday series exploring Startups and the people who make them go. Read allIf the Shoe Fits posts here

5726760809_bf0bf0f558_mJody Foster is chair of the department of psychiatry at Pennsylvania Hospital; immediately after receiving her MBA she has a very different experience assessing startup teams for VCs considering investing.

…to understand who the main players in that company were, how the team functioned together, what kinds of personalities they had, and which ones needed watching as the company, and the venture capitalists’ investment, grew.

I’ve said for years that people aren’t faucets and can’t/don’t turn their feelings and attitudes on and off depending where they are; Foster puts it differently.

“People are people, no matter what industry they are in, and they bring their basic personalities to work,” says Foster. “When they act out in inappropriate ways — by, for example, bullying employees who work under them, compulsively micro managing, displaying narcissistic tendencies — it can be devastating to the entire workplace.”

Founders need to evaluate potential new hires as objectively as Foster would.

That means ignoring their skills and looking at the whole person warts and all.

Your team can survive a person with great attitude, but weaker skills, until they strengthen and grow.

What your team won’t survive is the so-called star with superb skills who brings with them the traits Foster mentions or any that are in direct opposition to the culture you are creating.

They will destroy you.

Image credit: HikingArtist

Ducks in a Row: Red Hat Culture

Tuesday, April 9th, 2013

http://www.flickr.com/photos/ny-insurance/6813596277/These days most CEOs acknowledge the importance of culture.

Most incoming CEOs either want to protect and extend that current culture (think Apple) or radically change one that isn’t working (think Yahoo).

There is also a percentage that want to revamp the culture in their own image even whether the current culture is working (think Home Depot) or not (think Penney’s, which I wrote about last month, and that just fired their ex Apple CEO yesterday).

Red Hat CEO Jim Whitehurst was in the first group when he joined in 2007, but it was a real stretch (more like an unexpected bucket of ice).

He came from Delta Airlines command and control culture to a cultural meritocracy based on an open source mindset.

He calls it a “meritocracy” meaning leaders arise based on their brains, not their spot on an org chart.

The chaotic nature, the fact that people can call me up whenever and often call me an idiot to my face. We yell and we debate and we have these things out. Our culture matches the culture around open source, so the people who want to be involved in open source feel at home.”

The proof that it works is in the pudding of revenues and retention.

Red Hat, the first and only open-source software maker to crack $1 billion a year in revenues, is growing like mad.

The company has about 5,700 employees now, hiring about 1,000 workers in 2012. It will hire another 600 to 800 in 2013.

Yet the attrition rate of his R&D group—the company’s biggest group of engineers—is only 1.5%, compared to an industry average of about 5%.

Those are numbers any CEO would be bragging about, no matter what industry.

While merit rules and open source attitudes are sacred, Red Hat is in no way a democracy.

Red Hat still has managers and those managers are still responsible for decisions.

“It’s about transparency not democracy, I can make wildly unpopular decisions and at times I have to do that … as long as I have gotten feedback and articulated my reasons clearly, I can do that.”

It doesn’t need to be. People don’t want to work in a company where decisions are based on majority rule; what they want is to be heard.

They want to know that their colleagues, whether bosses, peers or subordinates, will listen to them and discuss the merits of their thought/idea/complaint no matter who they are or what they do.

Even if you didn’t click any of the above links be sure to check out these 12 Red Hat Management Tips.

The more you implement them the more things will change or, as I keep telling clients, to change how they act change how you think.
Flickr image credit: Dave Lobby

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