Maxine Harris and her partner Helen Bergman started a business and grew it to $35 million through trial and error and constant change. In her new book, Lessons for Non-Profit and Start-Up Leaders: Tales from a Reluctant CEO, Maxine shares lessons that can benefit all of us starting something new. She shares how they overcame obstacle after obstacle to succeed. I recently spoke with her about the lessons she shares in her new book.
When should a start-up start thinking about culture?
Culture is not really something that you think about when you first start a business. You might say, we want to be casual or formal, or we want to maintain an air of professionalism, but short of being doctrinaire, you can’t really control what organizational culture will become. More than anything, culture evolves from the personalities of the founders. I happen to be very chatty and like to ask a lot of questions. Some employees see that as friendly; others see it as intrusive. When I push people to “think smart” and try to do things in better and more creative ways, some people see me as demanding and judgmental, others feel that I am encouraging and stimulating. In both cases, it is the employee who identifies culture based on how they interpret what is going on.
Culture is one of those things that exists in the eye of the beholder. An employee, an outside consultant or a business colleague takes a step back and sees the unspoken rules and nuances of the organization. Sometimes people are only aware of the organizational culture when they are asked what they like or don’t like about their jobs. When we asked people who were joining the organization what they were looking for in their selection of a job, we got a glimpse into the kind of culture in which they would feel most comfortable. And while many said they were looking for an environment in which their opinions were valued and respected, others wanted a cultural milieu in which the boss would tell them what to do and they would have clear guidelines for performance.
Over the years, as Community Connections grew in size and diversified in its programs, culture changed. You could feel the difference. A business with three employees can’t help but be informal and casual. But as we grew and increased our size to over 400 employees, it became impossible not to have some hierarchical structure. You can remember the names of three people, but when the size gets big, and leaders are rushing from one meeting to the next, it’s hard to be as friendly as you’d like to be.
“Culture is the arts elevated to a set of beliefs.” –Thomas Wolfe
At the beginning it was called administration. That is why MBA stands for Master of Business Administration.
Over time “administration” was found to be too limiting as a concept. It was delegated to low level supervisory and bureaucratic positions, and the concept of management was born. Business Schools across the country changed their name from Graduate School of Business Administration to Graduate Schools of Management.
The concept of management was not yielding the right understanding of the process of transforming organizations, and the concept of Executive Action was born. Titles such as CEO, CIO, CMO etc. appeared like mushrooms after the rain, and executive programs emerged in the market place.
Still not good enough to explain how organizations should be transformed, the concept of leadership started dominating the literature.
What is going on here?
Administration, Management, and Leadership have a common purpose. They are theories that prescribe how organizations should be transformed and how to manage change. They are all based on the same paradigm of individualism, that a single individual is the driving force of this transformation, whether it is called Chief Administrator or Manager or CEO or Leader.
“The achievements of an organization are the results of the combined effort of each individual.” –Vince Lombardi
As long as we remain with the same paradigm, no concept will be satisfactory. We will continue to change titles, embellish concepts and continue to chase our own tails, reinventing the same wheel from administration to leadership. Leadership will be assigned its place in the annals of social sciences next to management and administration.
Individuals cannot transform organizations. It is a team process.
No individual possesses all the ingredients in his or her personality that are necessary for successful management of change.
“Individuals cannot transform organizations. It is a team process.” -Dr. Adizes
What makes businesses vulnerable to disruptive change?
There are 2 main messages in my book.
First, that while we think the world is changing rapidly, in fact, we continue to rely on a platform that arose from the invention of 3 general purpose technologies in the 1870’s: the internal combustion engine, the light bulb, and the telephone. Even with the computer and the Internet, we have spent decades boxing in this amazing new technology to fit our paradigm need for a faster, smaller, cheaper phone. So, while we think we are in the midst of rapid change, the western world is in fact obsessed with ensuring we stick with the old world and reward refinements of tired mature ways of doing things. When real change comes, will business leaders be prepared? I don’t think so.
One of the reasons why we won’t respond well when real change comes is that while ideas are abundant, small start-up ventures lack the resources – people, money, physical assets — to launch these ideas. They also lack the credibility, networks, access to customers, suppliers, government officials, etc. This limits their ability to move these ideas forward, no matter how great they may be. At the same time, existing companies are flush with people, money, networks, customers, and, most important, credibility and brand value. But what they lack is an entrepreneurial mindset. To move forward, companies need to resist the rhetoric of finding and sticking to a narrow form of sustainable competitive advantage, and instead adopt a model of strategic entrepreneurship that promotes transformational growth and longevity.
The fundamental impact of disruptive change is that our organizations are not built to manage change very well. Through principles such as sustainable competitive advantage, we tend to use fixed mindsets that build a sort of impenetrable armor around the firm’s processes and procedures, instead of being flexible and adaptable. When disruptive technologies or business models present an alternative, firms resist. Indeed, even customers often resist, as we remain stuck in our paradigms formed as noted above. However, in time, customers adapt because they do not have the level of sunk investment in the old ways that companies often do. Time and again, rigid non-entrepreneurial firms fall by the wayside.
There are many very extreme examples of this phenomenon. Think of Kodak, which is a firm that actually pioneered digital photography, but in the end was unable to adapt to this powerful disruptive technology.
“Progress is a nice word we like to use. But change is its motivator. And change has its enemies.” –Robert Kennedy
How can large organizations embrace a spirit of entrepreneurship?
I emphasize the importance of adopting three points:
Recognize that opportunities are developed at all levels of the organization.
Build a culture that embraces and supports entrepreneurship.
Consciously develop support for entrepreneurial initiatives through effectual processes or bricolage.
The key is leadership, not only in words, but in action. It is imperative that the CEO endorse an entrepreneurial culture by example – championing new ideas. In fact, a failure or two is good because it demonstrates that even the CEO recognizes that not every entrepreneurial idea is destined for success, and it is important to manage your investment and ensure that no one new venture will take down the ship.
“Culture eats strategy for breakfast.” –Peter Drucker
What are the elements of a good corporate culture?
There are many theories on this question, and I included quite a few in my book. In the end, the key elements are:
Provide open opportunities for opportunity development – these include group time (because we know that mixing people with diverse expertise and background can lead to innovative solutions), plus unstructured open thinking time (such as 3M’s famous “tinkering” time).
Adopt a learning culture – growth mindsets are essential, pursuing what could be as opposed to why this won’t work.
Accept failure, and the importance of learning from failure.
Adopt bricolage (known outcomes, with unknown ways of getting there), or effectuation (building on invention, experiment, and science) as frameworks for pursuing each entrepreneurial initiative (purposefully).
“The only sustainable competitive advantage is an organization’s ability to learn faster than the competition.” –Peter Senge
How do leaders encourage creativity at all levels of the organization?
The first thing I would say is that leaders must recognize that organizations need time to change. This is not an overnight process and will require considerable and repetitive actions and wins to change. And failure is a key component – an organization can move far closer to being creative and adopting entrepreneurial thinking by showing that a person with a great idea that failed in implementation is celebrated as thinking outside the box, rather than penalized for failing.
Researchers have studied the importance of story-telling in organizations, and how a lasting culture can be built around well-known, maybe even legendary, stories that come from the history of the organization. The dimensions of story-telling I describe in my book include equality (versus inequality), security (versus insecurity), and control (versus lack of control). Through story-telling of actual events that happened in the organization’s history, employees are able to gauge whether the organization will endorse or shun creativity at all levels.
“Successful innovators are..not risk-focused; they are opportunity focused.” –Peter Drucker
The competition lives outside the four walls of the organization. In-fighting just wastes time and energy and can contribute to distrust. Placing focus on the competition allows a firm to put that energy to good use and diminishes the time that staff dedicates to internal politics and positioning.
“Focus on the competition to diminish the time dedicated to internal politics.” -James Kerr
Management must set an expectation that all of the business dealings of an enterprise are done with the whole truth, and nothing but the truth in mind. Eliminating “spin” improves transparency and enhances trust.
“Eliminating spin improves transparency and trust.” -James Kerr
It’s our job to ensure that everyone knows what success is and what their role is in achieving it. Once that is established, attention must shift to making sure everyone “does their job.” This focus contributes to establish a high trust work environment.
“Ensure everyone knows what success is and what their role is in achieving it.” -James Kerr