Catcher in the ROI: Bringing Back Workplace Mojo

Have you ever watched a friend or former colleague lose their mojo in their work? Their fire and brimstone replaced with dull malaise. Their struggle to summon the energy just to talk about their company. It’s like a deflated clown balloon – there’s still a smile, but it’s sad and misshapen.

After witnessing this condition a lot lately, and having fallen victim to malaise in my own life, I started thinking about how to protect against it. Whatever I do next I want to create a culture of meaning, where people can stay challenged, alive and on their game – avoiding the death march of working with people they don’t trust or like, on a problem they can’t stand.

prison yard - Version 2

And I think you can do it without burning people out. I’m no longer in my selfish 20’s with nothing but time on my hands, so the challenge is to create a place where people are on fire, but can still maintain close relationships with friends and families and achieve equal or better financial success (except for any employees in their 20’s – they should be pulling all-nighters).

While many people will dismiss this thinking as the ramblings of a sun-burned ex-CEO too long out of the chair, I’m convinced there is a path that is both authentic and practical for achieving the proverbial “marathon, not a sprint.” Something between naive, feel-good HR sound bites and salty business advice with no magic.

The underlying question: Is great work culture solely a by-product of unbridled success, or does success come from great culture? Is it possible to see a return on investment (ROI) from investing in collective meaning that pays dividends throughout the life of the organization?

In pursuit of this work culture nirvana, I came up with the following personal tenets for my next gig. Taken individually, most of these points are about as original as an NBC sitcom plot, but together, they serve an important role in defining my next organization.

  1. Start with Purpose. Even if you’re not curing cancer, find a way to connect day-to-day activities to improving lives and helping people. Ensure colleagues understand the larger, human story behind what they’re doing. Great companies not only help the world, but provide a context in which the employees can become great in the process.

  2. Win. Pizza Fridays and foosball tables are useless if you’re not beating goals and winning. Too many companies are busy looking inwardly to understand their “culture” instead of focusing on the biggest contributor to that culture: success.

  3. Money Follows, Never Leads. Stay away from people driven primarily by money. I don’t want colleagues looking for “a job,” nor does anyone want to be part of a company run by bloated egomaniacs looking to buy their third Ferrari.

  4. Openness. As you can probably tell from this blog, I don’t just “open the kimono.” I burn it and run naked and screaming through town. While there is a small percentage of information you just can’t share, being open and honest about the rest of it builds trust and forms a tight culture.

  5. Teamyness. Ensure people feel connected and fired up, and that they’re supporting each other. Monitor. Hire diverse people, but ensure their values match up with the company’s, and be quick to kick out those who don’t further these goals (something like Willy Wonka’s golden egg machine for employees).

  6. Make ‘em Feel Wanted. At their core, people want to be accepted and valued for who they are. Celebrate the uniqueness of each person, even if that uniqueness includes stuffing their office with Charles in Charge posters.

  7. Celebrate Success: Some of my best memories are from victory celebrations. It’s rare in life to have those home-run moments after high school. Find ways to give people the chills because of what they’ve pulled off.

  8. Give Back. Connect work life back to the community as a whole (stay tuned for an upcoming blog on this one).

This pledge is easier to pull off in the early days when you still have a small, collaborative team. It gets much harder as a company is successful and scales. All the more reason it needs to be part of the fabric (values, mission, goals, tools, conversations) of the business from day one.

Ironically, in thinking through this problem, it dawned on me that helping those superstars who have lost their mojo is a source of meaning for me. Like Holden Caulfield’s eponymous metaphor where he wants to be a “catcher in the rye” to save children from the pain of adulthood, I find myself wanting to help people avoid a meaningless existence in the workplace and create the context for them to come alive again. I guess that’s the air in my clown balloon.

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8 thoughts on “Catcher in the ROI: Bringing Back Workplace Mojo

  1. Fabulous post. I applaud your quest to create a culture with the 8 tenets you list above and am on a similar quest myself. I offer one additional for your list – Learning. Creating an atmosphere where diversity leads to continuing education through new experiences. We all have the capacity and ability to continue to learn as we grow.

  2. This reminds me a lot of Jared Diamond’s Anna Karenina principle. According to Wikipedia [1]:
    “The Anna Karenina principle describes an endeavor in which a deficiency in any one of a number of factors dooms it to failure. Consequently, a successful endeavor (subject to this principle) is one where every possible deficiency has been avoided.”

    Having worked at the same company for 7 years, I tend to understand the situation you describe. I have witnessed first-hand employees who lost their faith in the company’s vision or, as frequently, the company’s ability to execute on its vision. In order to avoid this, you have to commit to a goal that is both ambitious, yet within reach.

    One of the big challenges of outlining this type of vision is to define the time frame by which you’ll be assessing success. Success 3 years down the road is not the same as 15 years from now. Some organisations, such as Google, set a mission for themselves that is both very broad (“organise the world’s information”) yet divisible into smaller chunks of success (“we managed to become the leading search engine”). Is their case an outlier?

    Another question is the objective you have for your employees. For instance, how would you assess a situation such as Dustin Moskovitz leaving Facebook to start Asana? Is it a failure on Facebook’s side to keep him aligned and interested in the company’s vision, or a success in that his success with Facebook enabled him to pursue his own meaningful venture?

    Another example. You ask whether success comes from a great culture, or whether success creates a great culture. Well, you can have great success without a great culture preceding nor following. Case in point: Zynga. It became a $3B+ company with what has been described as a shitty culture [2]. The company is in a bit of trouble right now though, which can arguably be linked to its culture issues.

    I’d be interested in a list of companies that you may have identified that currently match most or all of the criteria you outlined above. Would companies such as 37signals or Craigslist, with their notoriously high employee retention rates, qualify? Back in 2008, Jim Buckmaster, Craigslist’s CEO, stated that: “We’ve never had a member of our tech team quit, and most of our workers are techies. Working here, people feel like they’re making a difference in the world.” That sounds very much like your goal as outlined above.

    ––––

    [1] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anna_Karenina_principle
    [2] http://dealbook.nytimes.com/2011/11/27/zyngas-tough-culture-risks-a-talent-drain/
    [3] http://www.businessweek.com/stories/2008-04-15/q-and-a-with-jim-buckmaster-of-craigslist

      1. Speaking of Dustin Moskovitz, any thoughts about Holacracy?

        “Holacracy is a social technology or system of organizational governance in which authority and decision-making are distributed throughout a fractal holarchy of self-organizing teams rather than being vested at the top of a hierarchy.” [1]

        Its objectives sound a lot like what you’re trying to achieve… Their self-defined vision states that:

        “Holacracy is a real-world-tested social technology for purposeful organization. It radically changes how an organization is structured, how decisions are made, and how power is distributed.”

        Did you take a look at it, considered it and discarded it?
        —-
        [1] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Holacracy
        [2] http://www.holacracy.org/

  3. Great insights on the specialized bricks needed to build such a wall, Dave.

    Feels like you’re influenced some by Peter Drucker’s “Culture eats strategy for breakfast” teachings… Immensely hard to build a functional framework around what a true culture-driven organization, yet if built soundly, well positioned to win. The clarity of purpose alone would breed confidence.

    And perhaps Scott Baio’s tortured & layered character in Charles in Charge was, in fact, Holden Caulfield. The lost idealism & realized indignities of a young adult life. Maybe revisit those overlooked & utterly joyless Charles re-runs… Had Salinger had a laugh-machine & more wrongly overheard conversational high-jinx in his writings, it may have been clearer to see this unexpected connection.

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