One of my discoveries was a podcast of the Avengers radio show. Yes, there was one, although it didn’t really come from the Golden Age of radio, rather being adapted from the TV show. Nonetheless, listening to episodes of the Avengers pointed up four very important points:
1. Russian accents are only the second most villainous sounding accents. British accents are the most villainous, probably because they always sound like they have anti-social personality disorder.
2. British accents also sound heroic, at least when they aren’t the villains.
3. Old time commercials in a British accent sound like something out of Monty Python.
4. When word “helpless” is said immediately before “Emma Peel” you know someone is in for a very nasty surprise.
I’m not entirely sure what this means, although the first might reflect my image of Boris Badenov as the quintessential Russian villain. Since this year is the 50th anniversary of Rocky and Bullwinkle, perhaps Russian accented villains will make a comeback. I’ll leave that to James Bond (or Moose and Squirrel).
What is more interesting is how well a 1960s cold-war espionage show holds up half a century later. Despite all our changes in technology and politics, and the much touted generational shift in the workplace, it should come as no big surprise that human nature hasn’t changed at all: people are still, basically, people, and John Steed and Emma Peel are just as suave and sophisticated today as they were fifty years ago. Despite all the noise about Boomers, Gen X, and Gen Y, there are also some things about the workplace that simply haven’t changed, although our perception and understanding of them might have.
In my book, “The 36-Hour Course in Organizational Development,” I discuss the twelve key elements of building a successful business. These elements are, in many ways, as timeless as John Steed and Mrs. Peel, if not always quite so sexy. They are, however, the key points that any entrepreneur needs to work with if you want to maximize your chances of creating a successful business.
Let’s start with organizational culture. Culture is the most powerful, and least understood, aspect of business. Far too often, culture is relegated to the status of “that’s just how we do things around here.” Unfortunately, this myopic focus on what people do misses the key point of why they do it. As you build your business, you will experience successes and failures. Over time, you will, therefore, seek to reproduce your successes and avoid the failures. Eventually, these lessons form the core of the culture, often without our really noticing that it’s happening. Behaviors are adopted and procedures put in place that become habitual. Cultures forget the why, remembering only that there was a good reason for the decision. At one company, beautiful and elaborate explanations were developed for why a business required exactly four items in a checklist be reviewed before a product went out the door.
Upon investigation, it eventually turned out that back when the company was small, the CEO had once said, “I think that checking four things should be enough.”
That offhand comment was enshrined as holy writ as the company grew. Even the CEO had forgotten he had made the comment until questioning jogged his memory. It took an outsider to notice the behavior and track it down. In the meantime, the behavior had come to be accepted mindlessly as the way things must be done. In this case, it didn’t do them any particular harm. Frequently, though, when the why is forgotten, it can become a booby-trap waiting to explode when economic or competitive conditions change.
Pay attention as you build your culture. It will reflect your values, your behaviors, and the things to which you pay attention. As the company grows, people will analyze and interpret your actions, so what you say and do will shape the culture, sometimes in unpredictable ways! Often, our own familiarity with our culture makes it impossible for us to see what’s happening.
As you start to shape your culture, you need to consider your goals. Goals are funny things: although well-constructed goals are one of the most powerful tools available, very few people use them well. Unfortunately, like all power tools, if you don’t know how to use them well, you can cut yourself off at the knees. Perhaps one of the most critical aspects of goals is focusing on success: the unfortunate tendency is to look at how far the goal fell short of the ideal; rather, look at what worked and then at what can be improved. As much as these two methods may seem semantically equivalent, the second approach generates much greater energy and enthusiasm than the first. John Steed and Mrs. Peel always celebrate their intermediate successes, even when the job isn’t complete. With my clients, I break the habit of focusing on failure by always asking them to review progress made and then help them generate ideas for moving forward from there. It’s amazing how well that works to build excitement and confidence.
When your goals are aligned with your culture and you start projecting them forward to describe the ultimate objective of your company, you are starting to create your vision. If you don’t like the term “vision,” you could also consider this thinking strategically. Although people try to build all manner of distinctions and subtle permutations around these concepts, they really aren’t all that different. You need to set some long-term goals that flow from your culture, those goals need to establish what your company is ultimately all about, and you need to plan for how you’ll get there. Call it vision, call it strategy, if you don’t have it, what you do have is trouble. Even the Avengers won’t be able to help you. Many entrepreneurs try to develop their strategy on their own. That’s a recipe for disaster. Instead, find someone with whom you can brainstorm. Make sure it’s someone dedicated to your success, not just a random friend: most people will, with the best of intentions, discourage you, not act as good sounding boards.
The natural outgrowth of vision and strategy is an understanding of whom you should be hiring. It’s easy to look for people based on buzzwords or intuition, but neither of those work particularly well. You have no magic ability to identify a good hire, and the odds are the person you’re interviewing has more experience being interviewed than you have interviewing candidates. Look for people who resonate with your culture and vision: does your description of your company and your goals get their attention? You want people who are capable of being passionate about something: if someone is capable of passion and is excited by your goals, then you have a good shot at hiring the right person.
Hiring is often given short shrift, particularly by early stage companies that are trying to save money. You get what you pay for: if you don’t hire right, motivation, team-building, leadership, innovation, become far more difficult to do well, and far more expensive. At one bioinformatics company, the CFO ordered a manager to hire the candidate who would accept the lowest offer. Six months later, that candidate was fired for incompetence. The other two went on to successful careers… elsewhere. Which candidate was really the best investment? Also, remember that you’re hiring talent, not bargaining for a side of beef. If you play hardball on salary, you establish a mistrustful relationship from the start. Is that really what you want?
Hiring feeds into motivation: if you don’t have the right people, motivating them becomes extremely difficult. Given that motivation isn’t always easy even when you do have the right people, why make it harder than it needs to be? Simply put, you’re looking for marathon runners: people who are willing to work at something for a very long time before there are results. This is why serious athletes and black belt level martial artists are so good in business settings. There are a number of powerful techniques to building and maintaining motivation, but the key concepts are these: people need to feel that their personal goals are served by accomplishing the company’s goals, people must believe in your strategy, and you need to figure out each employee’s individual strength profile so that you can make sure they spend the maximum amount of time possible on the tasks they find personally rewarding. At one software company, the insistence that each person spend the bulk of their time on tasks designed to “fix” their weaknesses led to open rebellion and the loss of several key people.
Stephen Balzac is a consultant and professional speaker. He is president of 7 Steps Ahead (www.7stepsahead.com), an organizational development firm focused on helping businesses to increase revenue and build their client base. Steve is a contributing author to volume one of “Ethics and Game Design: Teaching Values Through Play,” and the author of “The 36-Hour Course in Organizational Development,” published by McGraw-Hill. Contact him at 978-298-5189 or [email protected].