Companies that are led by passion are remarkable places

Companies that are led by passion are remarkable places to work because they hold the potential for greatness.

When most of us think about start-ups, we build pictures of smart, young, vibrant entrepreneurs with technology to sell.

When I think about start-ups, I am excited by experiencing passion that is so palpable it infects me too.

Start-ups and early stage growth companies are places fuelled by possibilities and unlimited opportunities.  They face many interesting challenges, from building systems just ahead of the business need, to working with fewer people than needed to get the job done comfortably, or satisfying customers who are only just discovering they have a need.

There is also an important, and often hidden, challenge how to hold on to the ethos of the business as it grows.

It doesn’t matter if the pathway to growth is organic and through acquisitions, scaling-up creates new problems that won’t we solved with technology.    These new opportunities are largely organisational and interpersonal which is why founders who have been successful understand that the most critical capability they needed to successfully scale-up was leadership.

Good advice

When starting to lead the change program that will see your company transform, take a little advice from Meg Whitman “… figure out what that company’s doing right, and do more of it.”  The real challenge when growth happens is holding on to the essential ethos of the business.  The first step I ask founders to take, is to protect the culture their passion has created, because this is their secret weapon.   I tell them take time-out to understand what you have created; why it works? And why it is important to the people that have made a choice to join you?

Looking at what is great, and understanding what makes people happy, will tell you what to focus on as a starting point.

Shifting attention

Most founders fall in love with the technology or the idea that they saw as the opportunity for their business.  Once teams are in place, and the products are being delivered to customers, it’s time to shift attention.  This move can be tough, but it is essential to the successful transition into sustainable growth.

Skyscanner, a company that has enjoyed fast growth and success understands this shift and has managed to create awareness throughout its management layers.  Filip Filipov, Director of Product in 2015, blogged a quote from Peter Drucker, ‘Culture eats strategy for breakfast’ highlighting the philosophical shift from logic to the importance of the emotional element of leadership. He then went on to write “…. the watershed that splits good companies from great ones will be the culture and the leadership behaviours that shape it.”  Filip humbly signed off with an apology for not exhibiting the right leadership behaviours as often as he would like to have.

The Skyscanner leadership team understands the value of this shift as the source of its success.

It’s not beanbags and pinball machines

Culture is the feelings you share working in a place; it’s the ideas, customs, and social behaviour of a particular group of people working for a common purpose.  It’s unique. It can’t be faked into being by buying pinball machines, or painting art on walls, or having beanbags and cool furniture. The authentic nature of any group’s culture is observable. How they treat each other, what they share, how they look, the documents they create, the meetings they have, the things they talk about and what they produce are clues to the culture at work.

Cultural artefacts also include myths and stories that tell how the company became a success. These stories have heroes and heroines who have been key to the business; they (the stories) become a system of metaphors that tell people what is expected of them. The same too can be said of physical attributes, such as, how the office or factory looks, the interior and exterior design, the equipment used.  Fuzzball tables, beanbags, coloured walls, and slogans, are valuable artefacts or rituals that work for a business when they are genuine expressions of a core culture that is aligned with the future ambitions of the business.

Words and actions count

When Meg Whitman tore down the wood panelling of the old executive offices at HP, it sent a clear message of a change in culture. She commented “… we never actually had to publicise this; 330,000 HP people knew [it] within about 32.5 seconds.”

Gandhi wrote.

“Your beliefs become your thoughts, Your thoughts become your words, Your words become your actions, Your actions become your habits, Your habits become your values, Your values become your destiny.”

His words are remarkably relevant to today’s leaders and founders creating new value for a future world. Beliefs and values shape how things get done, announce what is important and dictate how people are treated.   Keeping the culture, relevant, aligned, vibrant and enabling takes care and attention.

Howard Schultz, the man who founded the most successful coffee company in the world, Starbucks, has lived through start-up to a high-growth company and offers this lesson “Success is not sustainable if it is defined by how big you become or by growth for growth’s sake.  Success is very shallow if it doesn’t have emotional meaning.”

Belief is an emotion that expresses who we are in the world. If you are the leader what you believe matters because it can shape the way your managers handle your business.  When Schultz left Starbucks, managers lost their way over time and nearly destroyed the business he had started. When he returned his first order of business was to re-establish the values to get back to the core ethos that shaped the company in the first place. He then took the bold, and expensive, step of closing every outlet worldwide to train each member of the Starbucks team how to make a great cup of coffee.

He wanted Starbucks to be known, once again, for the quality of its coffee and not for the size of the company.

Understand – Shift – Symbols – Breed

Growth is a good thing that can make your company great if you understand what you are doing right and do more of it.

Shift your attention to building your leadership team and take care to tell the stories that matter.

Create positively authentic symbols of your culture and care about your beliefs enough to breed a great leadership culture that will take your company into the future.

Why change needs leadership

Create the path

Organisations need people who challenge the status quo and look for new sources of value because business-as-usual leads to decline. Disruptors are everywhere and are very much part of the 21st-century competitive landscape.

Step 1. Generate Urgency

There are plenty of examples of companies that have been left behind because they didn’t have leadership looking into the future. Kodak missed the digital revolution, Nokia missed the smartphone shift, Amstrad was once the UK’s largest computer supplier that lost its foothold because it failed to understand the concept of networking, and DEC (The Digital Equipment Corp) in the 80’s was second only to IBM. However, its president proclaimed that there would never be a market for a computer in the home. Oops!

It takes leadership to step outside of the b-a-u model and start to generate a real sense of urgency amongst key stakeholders. The pushback comes in waves of logic insisting that the business needs to focus on the here-and-now. This kind of logic is hard to defeat because it has certainty on its side and it can be backed up with accurate projections.

Following the same path is seductive because to looks safe, but it’s only a matter time before a new business model shatters this illusion.

Step 2. Get the right people onboard

Effecting change requires a team of influential stakeholders that are interested in exploring the future.  Finding the next disruptive innovation is a challenging exercise. Turning it into a commercial success requires more than the willpower of one individual, it requires complementary knowledge and skills that only a team can bring.

To address the logical arguments for the existing business model, you must develop more compelling and robust arguments for the new prototype. Tools such as the business canvas and design thinking are essential and require a team to test assumptions, build hypothesis and research changes. Pulling this team together and engaging them in search the future is the output of great leadership.

Step 3. Developing a Vivid Vision of the Future

As most successful athletes will tell you, seeing the win before it happens is a critical component of their preparation for success.

Setting out to build a vivid vision opens up the list of topics to be discussed by the team. It shifts the focus from big generic ideas to specific details that make the vision more tangible. Conversations about what the offices will look like are not trivial because they open up discussions about culture, people and the kinds of aspirations that the team has about where and how they want to work. Storytelling, in this way, improves how the teammates understand each other’s values and motivators. Sharing builds the team’s common ground and develops a sense of belonging which creates the bond necessary to enable them to meet tough challenges together.

Step 4. Communicating the vision clearly and often

When you develop the vision, follow Elon Musk’s example, check out his plan to colonise Mars, rich visualisations are within everyone’s grasp; use pictures, videos, animations, and of course PowerPoint to share and more importantly allow audiences to interact with the vision. The questions people ask are sources of enrichment, especially questions you or your team have not yet asked.

The more you share, the more you can learn, providing you remain open to questions and are curious about the views of others. Seeing your vision from multiple perspectives adds ideas that can be used to make your vision better and more vivid.

Step 5. Removing obstacles

If you are going to disrupt your own company’s business model, there will be obstacles that will need attention.

Map out the plan to get from where you are to where your future lies. Plot major obstacles and begin by asking who do you need to put in a room to remove each obstacle. For inspiration, think about the challenge that faced Steve Jobs when he wanted to launch iTunes. Jobs and his team had to convince the record label bosses to put their collections in their store online. This intervention created the digital music market.

Step 6. Celebrate Short term wins and avoid premature declarations of victory

Disrupting an industry can bring quick wins. Celebrating these is an important strategy to maintain the high levels of engagement needed to turn quick wins into a sustainable business model. At this point, the leader must become a chess player.

Planning to celebrate small wins is an exercise in maintaining morale as well as building culture. Every successful leader knows that culture is the key to sustaining a successful business. As plans are executed, what gets celebrated, and what is rewarded, tell the story of what is being built, these are the cultural artefacts that people share, and they will become the mythology of the business.

This is why change needs leaders. It takes leadership to guide people through all of these steps and engage the many stakeholders needed to make change a reality.

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