As I reflect on my journey in launching a start-up and leading a mind blowing tribe of creative people, I regularly come back to one overarching question: how did we get here?
It was only seven years ago that a friend-of-a-friend and I decided to do this thing — just the two of us, both working out of our respective basements, with no money, 100% bootstrapping it. In short time, we’ve somehow managed to grow things to something much more significant, more mature, and even sustainable.
So how did it all happen? What lessons have we learned along the way that have had the greatest impact? And if we did it again, what would the blueprint look like?
I’ve honed in on the three most important concepts to our story, our success, and specifically in leading an organization made up largely of artists and creative minded people:
1. Genuine Care, Love and Support for One Another.
Yes, I realize how hippie-dippie this sounds. No matter what you think, this concept has been the undeniable X-Factor for us and for our continued success. And it’s also the one thing that every boss and company I’ve ever worked for has gotten wrong.
Please note the word “genuine” and consider how it precedes everything else. Being genuine is monumental, as a lot of leaders are pretty good at coming up with cool sounding mantras or they're good at designing cool workspaces and installing beer kegs in a vain attempt to show how much they care about their employees... and really, that's more about telling people how cool they are. No matter, take note that genuine care, love and support for one another isn't something you can't fake. Trust me, every employee knows when their leaders are posers.
For this to be real and authentic, it has to be 100%, completely baked into the DNA of every single person in the organization. It requires leaders to actually know their people and engage in relationship with them -- actually spending time with them, listening, opening up and mutually sharing about life and personal matters. It requires real, meaningful relationships — on a level that allows you to know who they are, what motivates them, what their needs are, and what matters most for them. And if it matters to them, it should matter to you.
In my organization, every leader has a one-on-one with every member of their respective team at least once a month. Most of our leaders do this bi-weekly. And by "one-on-ones," I’m talking about face-to-face hangout sessions, with people looking eachother in the eyes for at least 30 minutes, aiming to spend at least half of that time being quiet and listening, focused on more personal, non-work topics, asking questions like “what’s going on in your life?”
Genuine care also means knowing your people well enough to know when there might be something you can help with or something to celebrate. My leaders always have their antennas up, looking for special needs individuals may have, like replacing a broken iPhone or fixing someone’s broken down car. We’ve paid for counseling sessions and chiropractors, new MacBooks and for commuter bicycles. We’ve covered airfare so someone could fly across the country to participate in a meaningful cause, and a moving truck to make a potentially hectic move a little easier on someone. Sometimes the little things can be quite impactful.
There's no denying generous benefits and flexible policies can also help provide a solid foundation of care within an organization. Some benefits we’ve found to make a difference for our people include unlimited paid time off, paid health care, health and wellness stipends, sabbaticals, regular paid “creative days,” profit sharing, 401k matching, Bicycle and Bus Commuting Stipends, and access to educational resources like coaches, trainings, and Lynda.com.
Measuring results -- it's worth noting our turnover has been super low, almost non-existent over the seven plus years we've been in business. And that's saying a lot, considering most of these are millennials, musicians and creatives -- a demographic many don't believe to be overly committed or loyal (which has definitely not been my experience). Setting the warm fuzzies aside, the sheer business impact of minimal turnover is important on many levels. The cost alone of retaining staff vs recruiting and retraining new staff is estimated to be an additional 20% or more of each new person's annual pay -- not to mention the related time, stress, distraction, and energy it can require.
2. Strong Structure and Strong Systems
Especially when working with creative people and teams, strong structure and strong systems are critical in keeping the ship sailing smoothly and in avoiding confusion, nasty conflicts, communication breakdowns, internal dysfunction, and chaos. Simply put, strong structures and systems ARE the secret sauce for best fostering and supporting creativity. The structure itself actually provides the medium -- the most critical element -- for creativity and creative people to truly thrive.
Not convinced? Then think about music for a moment. Without the “structure” of rhythm, there’s no way to create a song or even a melody. Without understanding the 12 notes in a musical scale, it can be hard to compose a melody. Once a musician understands rhythm, notes and the structures inherent within music, the possibilities and creativity open up and become endless.
It's true within nature too -- arguably the most creative concept imaginable. Nature is full of structure -- and the rigidity of the structure, systems and processes can actually be quite complex too. For example, there are exactly 109 atoms — one for every element. And the differences between atoms give the elements their different chemical properties. And that's where the magic happens. And so on.
As such, within the creative teams at my business, we’re perpetually scrutinizing, optimizing and innovating our internal structures, systems and processes — constantly working to make them as strong and supportive as possible. At its best, a strong organizational structure provides the glue, reliability, and peace of mind among highly creative people and teams, ultimately making the creative work easier, more free flowing and able to truly thrive.
One example of how we've installed strong structure and systems is our Daily Huddles, which I explored in a previous essay. In future essays, I'll delve into other structures, tools and approaches we've found success with.
3. Alignment and Commitment Around What Matters the Most.
From our earliest days, we’ve been fierce about identifying what matters to us the most. Early on as founders, Brian and I regularly discussed what kind of company we wanted to lead, the kind of work we wanted to do, the kinds of people we wanted to work with, and values we wanted to live out. As things have progressed and as our venture has matured, we now frame these conversations around our purpose and our core values. We’ve invested a lot of time and resources and have gone to great lengths to achieve greater clarity, alignment and commitment around these things.
First and foremost, we searched our souls to establish what’s most important to us -- wrestling with these kinds of questions:
- What's our purpose? Why do we do what we do? What do we want to accomplish?
- What defines us? What’s our constitution? What are our core values?
- Where do we want to be one year from now? 3 years? 5 years?
- How do we want to impact our community? How do we want to impact the world? What will be our legacy?
Once we could confidently answer these questions, there’s a myriad of much deeper, more specific details and objectives we've drilled into, worked through, and we continue to drill into on a regular basis.
With all of that said, hear this: articulating your purpose, core values, and having all of that stuff figured out and having it written down somewhere isn’t the most important thing.
The most important thing is having 100% alignment and commitment to these things throughout all of our people, our teams and our entire organization. Without alignment and commitment by all, we're like a sailboat without wind. And so we've installed insanely comprehensive methods of communication, rhythm and alignment to make certain all of our people are on the same page. These include daily, weekly, monthly, quarterly and annual rituals, rhythms and events that provide regular checks and information exchange to keep everyone on the same page.
Worth noting -- whenever it comes to light that someone in the organization isn't fully committed or appears to be out of alignment, it has to be dealt with and managed immediately and swiftly. It's the sort of thing where one misaligned or under committed individual can have quite a profound negative effect on the whole lot, if not attended to quickly. Trust me, I've delayed or procrastinated handling such matters once or twice in the past, naively hoping they might dissipate or self-resolve, and it's always made things much harder in the end.
In summary, the three most important concepts to our story, our success, and specifically in leading creative people and creative teams are:
- Genuine Care, Love and Support for One Another
- Strong Structure and Strong Systems
- Alignment and Commitment Around What Matters the Most