Intentional Culture

Successful start-ups often feature an executive who gets credited for a brilliant product or strong service. The product/service is absolutely necessary for buyers, but the leader is celeberated for the wrong reason. Successful start-ups are made of great people. Great executives build teams and cultures that allow their concepts to come to fruition.

When I consider my past efforts to scale, one thing I want to do differently is build an intentional culture to attract the right talent. The culture will be clear in advance about benefits, lifestyle and tone.

Most start-ups create cultures in a haphazard fashion. They figure it out as they go.

The results are obvious. Lack of growth, high turnover, dysfunctional team behavior including absenteeism, poor work quality and infighting.

A founder’s job (and lead executives, too) is not to be the centerpoint of all things in the company, rather the principle enabler. The intentional culture builds a framework for employees to do their job with as little friction as possible.

The framework gives employees clear parameters to operate in and meet their goals. A leader’s job is to find great people, and then encourage them so they achieve their work and grow professionally.

How can you tell a company is a winner? It produces other winners. Successful cultures are marked by people who leave an organization as stronger more capable members of the workforce, including executives capable of leading their own group or starting their own company.

Hire Great Talent

How many times have you heard people complain about their boss? Tough, but hard, or crazy, or controls and interferes with aspects of the work. Bad management is the number one reason people quit their jobs.

Granted, some complaints are the result of managers balancing workload and nurturing people. If you have happy people and no work getting done, there is a problem. If work is getting done, but people are miserable, you have a problem.

Consistantly unhappy people is a clear signal that points to the founder and/or company executives. Founders and executives who cannot manage against their own shortcomings have a hard time succeeding. Some of it is personality, but at least 2/3 of management skills are teachable.

How can you tell if you are the problem as a founder?

Turnover ratio. Get above 20-30% in a single year, and there is a problem. If you are at 50% turnover, then you have a significant issue that needs to be addressed with either training or a change in leadershop. A 70-80% turnover rate in one year is a damning statement about the founder/executive in question.

One year turnover is bad for a company. You lose your investment of intellectual capital, people don’t grow from the experience, and the business is stymied with work in a constant state of flux. Plus customers are let down and leave, and the executive(s) becomes distracted by consistently recruiting replacements.

Everyone benefits when executives optimize the workplace for happiness. Some tips for founders/executives struggling with this:

1) Nurture people. If an executive (including me in the past) has an attitude of “tough, but fair” then they are pretty much an asshole. There is no room for that, and people do not succeed in a vacuum. This is one of my primary lessons learned. The executive should delegate, but be present to encourage and help employees as necessary. They are the ultimate coach, and in helping employees succeed, they win, too.

2) Employees are the center of the workplace universe. Executive attention is good for attracting business, but inside a company an executive competing for the most acknowledgement sucks the emotional life out of the larger team. An executive looks good when the staff performs well and are considered heroes by customers.

Don’t be the hero, make heroes. Want attention? Be a soloproneur. Want to make money? Build teams of stars.

3) Successfully getting work done while keeping people happy is a balancing act. An executive needs to nurture while getting team members to commit to getting work completed. Be random in rewards so they don’t become an expectation, but always be clear to acknowledge successes and strong efforts.

4) When it comes to feedback — a necessary component of getting work done — in person or on the phone is best. Emailed feedback is almost always a disaster (yes, experience again). Avoid giving negative feedback in writing if at all possible. Rather than expressing disapointment, offer your vision and a desire for better quality. Always show the desired outcome, and offer solutions so someone can learn how to get there.

How the Framework Helps

2248688019_f5346b61fd_z
Image by Chris Perardi.

Hiring great people as a start-up is a challenge because of size and risk. Once you get them on board — given an intentional framework and the right attitude of nurturing/work balance — an executive can focus on building the business. When people can’t succeed in the framework and an executive’s assistance, well, there is little you can do other than to move on.

In my mind, part of a good framework is work/life balance. The company has ethics and principles and that drives work ethos. Then there are random rewards for performance, and stated ones, e.g benefits. These create balance.

Expected benefits, which in many ways define the spirit of the company, also attract (or repel) candidates. Here are some of the things I am doing with Tenacity5:

1) Four weeks off, vacation, personal and/or sick leave. No questions asked. One month notice in writing is required for more than two consecutive days off (past lessons learned). Team members who work with the organization for more than two years will get five weeks off. Why so much time? I want to employ rested people that deliver great creative content and strategies on deadline.

2) The work must get done, but perhaps not 9-5. Flexible hours are acceptable so long as the work gets done.

3) Junior staff can telework one day a week. Executives may be hired who work from home (if they are in a different city without an office) or if there is an office they can telework two days a week.

4) Healthcare will be paid for in total by the company.

5) If the company achieves more than 20% profitability over costs in any quarter, profit sharing will occur with all team mebers.

6) No one will be staffed on more than three accounts. It is to the clients’ and the employees’ benefit that work doesn’t get diffused. Further, employees become more capable when they learn the ins and outs of a particular business sector.

7) A new MacBook Air is provided to all new employees. If an employee stays for more than 18 months, they keep the laptop as a bonus.

Generally, this is considered a very generous compensation package. It matches my concept of a framework for an intentional culture. There is a lot to be happy about, and hopefully that will attract employees who normally would go to more established businesses. Further, given the framework and the right management attitude, I believe that people will attend to their work with enhtusiasm.

What do you think?

Featured image by FDF Photo.

15 Replies to “Intentional Culture”

  1. “A founder’s job (and lead executives, too) is not to be the centerpoint of all things in the company, rather the principle enabler.” This needs to be a mandate to be a manager. If you can’t enable, you can’t manage. Amen!

    1. It’s all about workflow. Bottlenecks are a nightmare, and so are personalities that insist on being a part of everything. Oy!

      1. I concur! People who don’t realize they’re bottlenecks are definitely nightmares and should be talked to about it.

    1. Totally, and it is something I learned from some recent compensation package studies here in DC relating to Washingtonian’s Best Places to Work. Hope you are doing well!

  2. Hey Geoff, i think I know what you are saying on #2 about employees at center of workforce, but you may have just misaligned some words there in the paragraph. — “Executive attention is good for attracting business, but inside a company an executive competing for the most acknowledgemnet sucks the emotional life out of the larger team.” agreed — although solid work by the team can also attract new business/ retain and grow current business, and that should not be under estimated?
    — “An executive looks good when the staff performs well and are considered heroes by customers.” true….but also in order to not “suck the emotional life out of the team” should this sentence not also include….staff are heroes to each other, the customers and the executive.

    ps I dont know why it uses your pic…never mind. I fixed it

    1. These are some good points! I agree the team in the end is who the client should sing praises about and, and in that sense they attract new business while keeping clients happy. The team will be the ones that sustain grow the business, and thus are heroes to everyone.

Comments are closed.