It started out well enough. Excitement was in the air, high fives were regularly exchanged, bonus checks were often cut, and the consumption of chinese food late at night while you were working on a project was the norm. It was tiring, sure; but it was also invigorating. You and your team were there together, arms metaphorically locked as you journeyed toward what you were sure was going to be what the cool kids (of which I am not one) would describe as an “epic” new phase of your company’s business life.
Maybe you’re a small tech company. Maybe you’re a fledgling credit union. Maybe you’re a non-profit trying to make your corner of the universe a little bit better. Maybe you’re making eco-friendly t-shirts with eco-friendly messages. Whatever the scenario is, you were passionate. You were working extremely hard to make things work, and you knew the only way to do that–the only way you were going to survive in the market–was to make things. Build things. Create things.
And so you did.
It was just a handful of you then, so it was easier to do just that. There weren’t levels and layers of cumbersome beauracracy. You were lean, mean (albeit goofy), and even though your competitors wouldn’t say it out loud, they were a little worried about what you’d come up with next.
And then, sure enough, it happened. You did come up with something amazing. And unlike a lot of cool things that folks come up with, this one caught on and caught fire. You could barely keep up with the demand. You were proud–and rightly so–of your business, your product, and your team. You had been true to yourselves and your mission. You and your team–you were…you.
But time passed. As you grew in size, you also became more complex, and that’s fine. Maybe even inevitable. But when that happened it became increasingly difficult for you to see outside. Whereas on nights past you might take a moment’s break from a crazy project so that you can gaze out the window at the city lights and gain refreshment and inspiration, you now substitute that quick break for yet another glance at yet another spreadsheet.
Fast forward some more, and as you look around your building, you see groups and divisions. This is fine and good, you tell yourself, but your gut tells you something’s different. Something’s…wrong.
Fast forward even more–those groups and divisions have gradually become more insular in nature. Silos have begun to appear, both creative and managerial. The phrase “strategic plans” now has an ominous “s” on the end, as each division seems to be working toward a goal known only to it and some necessary other parties.
Leadership, concerned about the internal trends they’re seeing, begins gazing down, as if through a microscope, to observe what’s going on inside. It’s very expensive and costly navel-gazing. Instead of scanning the horizon for what’s next, you’re repeatedly scanning the most recent ROI report.
But change keeps happening. Business, like life, refuses to slow down.
As the business speeds up, your need to know how you’re doing increases as well. Your visual visits to night skyline have been almost completely replaced by you pacing the hallways pensively with words and phrases like output, ROI, inventory, and efficiency floating around in your head. Are those bad things to think about? Of course not. And yet you find yourself wondering silently if that’s what this is all about. Was it always like this?
Your company’s culture becomes increasingly scared to death of risk. Over time you’ve accumulated a plethora of processes to quantify and justify everything you do. The numbers tell you things; you can almost literally hear them speaking to you now. (As an aside–if you literally hear the numbers speaking to you, that could be the sign of a serious mental health concern.)
But it’s not only you that is starting to drown in data. All of your employees feel the pressure–not necessarily to perform and create, but to quantify and justify. They begin spending hour upon hour in meetings, where they measure the progress of things, and talk about output, or ROI, or inventory, or efficiency. They become masters of Microsoft Outlook, their fingers able to produce a ridiculous amount of emails from various devices. Generating and reading reports becomes a major time suck, with people spending hours and hours each day either reasearching for reports, compiling data into reports, and reading reports.
What’s the problem with all this? As your business has grown, you’ve allowed yourself and your company to get sucked into spending increasing amounts of time on stuff that fuels short-term, data-related business initiatives, while things that provide long-term value and business sustainability are–intentionally or unintentionally–pushed to the side.
You’ve unwittingly built an organizational culture wherein it becomes almost impossible for people to do what you’re now pleading with them to do. We need to be more innovative! We need to be more creative! We need to have a healthy culture! We want passionate, engaged employees! The problem is that you’re no longer built to operate that way. You can’t ask employees to innovate if you’ve built your organization to increase and idolize stability, predictability, and efficiency.
You can’t ask managers and leaders to engage their employees if they’re spending inordinate amounts of time in meetings and generating reports. And then when they’re not in meetings and generating reports, they’re frantically trying to dig out from under the hundreds, if not thousands, of emails that came in while they were in the aforementioned meetings and generating the aforementioned reports. And before you know it, the end of the day has arrived and they’ve had little to no time to actually invest any significant energy toward creating anything with long-term business value. Culture is an afterthought, employee engagement only occurs as they have time, and creativity only happens occasionally on accident.
We have to put a stop to this nonsense.
It’s lonely at the top, or so the saying goes. In fact, it can feel lonely a lot of places, can’t it? The CEO’s office, though an envied location by many, can seem utterly isolated to the one sitting in the chair behind the desk. Sometimes it can all get a bit stifling, whatever your particular role within an organization is.
Like my buddy James Robert Lay likes to remind me by channeling his inner Jack Shepherd: We can live together, or we can die alone. If you didn’t watch LOST, then the previous reference might be a little lost on you (see what I did there?), but I’m sure you can put it together. And if you did watch LOST, I’m sorry to bring back the likely painful memory of a show that ended up wasting a lot of our time. But I digress.
It’s important that you’re not alone. Everyone, and perhaps especially leaders, needs people around them to encourage them, push them, look out for them, and dream with them. We need people who help us think huge, as Mark Arnold so often and so correctly says.
You see, even the biggest of thinkers struggles sometimes. Even the great writers develop cases of the dreaded writer’s block. People who regularly inspire us all have uninspired spells themselves. That’s why it’s so important that we find ways to connect with folks who help us tap into who we are deep down inside. We’ve got to hunt down people who help us continue to grow into better and truer versions of ourselves. We all need those people who somehow seem to make it feel OK to think big and chase dreams. We all need to fight the fear that prevents us from thinking those thoughts and chasing those dreams. And we need to help others do the same.
I hope you have people like that in your life, because you need them. And I hope you’re that person for others, because they need you.