Confessions of a Former Task Master

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Published by Ron Carson

People often ask me how I get away from the office so much. The truth is, I never worry about our team doing X, Y or Z when I am gone. They are harder on themselves than I am. Our culture is what happens when I’m not around.

We made our culture a priority five years ago. Since then, we have grown from 20 internal stakeholders to 114 today. I enjoy the environment of our firm more than ever, and our revenues have quadrupled over that time period.

our firm didn’t always have a strong culture. I was actually destroying our culture and didn’t even know it. Growing up on a farm, I had a dad who was a task master. When I began running my own company, I took his approach. It was all about “Get your butt in the seat and get stuff done.”

What I soon learned is you can have the best strategy in the world, but if you don’t have the right culture, that strategy will go nowhere. It’s similar to football. No matter how great the team, if no one wants to play with each other, the team will go bust.

As I began studying the culture of great organizations, I came across the research ( of Harvard Business School professors John Kotter and James Heskett. In a 11-year study, they compared firms that have performance-enhancing cultures to those that do not. Their findings were astonishing:

  • Companies with performance-enhancing cultures saw average revenue growth of 682% over the 11 years, compared to 166% for other firms.
  • Businesses with performance-enhancing cultures saw their net income grow 756% in the same time period, compared to 1% for firms that did not prioritize culture.
  • Firms with performance-enhancing cultures saw 282% employment growth, vs. 36% for companies who did not.
  • The stock prices of firms that had performance-enhancing cultures grew 901% vs. 74% for those who did not.

A key step to transforming our culture into a performance-enhancing one was banning the use of the words staff or employee. If anyone asks me “How many employees do you have?” I’ll say, “Zero.” The only people we have here are associates and partners or internal stakeholders. Everyone is an internal stakeholder. Nobody works for each other. Everybody works with each other. We also have external stakeholders—our clients. Just making that shift in how we identify ourselves a few years ago was amazing, in terms of the attitude and pride people on our team felt.

I am the leader of my company, but I consider myself a peer to our other internal stakeholders. In a meeting, I will never sit at the head of the table. When someone comes into my office, we gather at a round conference room table.

Sharing the rewards of the company’s success with our internal stakeholders has been another key to transforming our culture. We see our people as an investment, not an expense.

One way we invest in them is through a compensation plan for those who are entrepreneurial and want to be rewarded that way. We call it our profits interest. It is an equity-like participation that allows them to share in the future appreciation of the firm. People love it. Of 114 internal stakeholders, we have 24 in the plan. This year, that number will probably expand to 40.

A vibrant culture makes it easier to attract ethical, high-energy, very intelligent people. Not long ago, we offered a position to someone who had interned with us for years. We found out later that we didn’t dangle as big a paycheck as some other competing firms. What made him say yes to us was our offer of profits interest. He understood that could be worth more than any salary he could make.

Experiences like this signal to me that we have a great culture, but I don’t rely on my opinion alone. In studying firms that are great places to work, like Zappos, I’ve learned that they measure what all of their internal stakeholders say about their culture. We have followed their lead. We use Gallup’s Q12 survey to anonymously poll employees on our culture. Gallup has studied about 3 million businesses around the world. The Q12 survey lets us compare ourselves to those businesses on 12 factors that lead to sales growth. It helps us develop a game plan on how to right size the culture.

Every firm has a culture. Is yours good or bad? Is it by design or default? And are you making a conscious effort to build one that is the best ever? If you’ve let your culture run on auto-pilot, I encourage you to make improving it a priority. When everyone loves coming to work, it is a lot easier to execute your growth strateg

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