Core Values Gone Bad
During this time we had a core value: “Take care of our people: our staff, our artists, our clients and our community.” At some point, we made the mistake of shortening it to simply “Take care of our people.” This was problematic because the only time anyone ever referenced it, it was to protect or defend someone’s individual comfort and their individual needs. This led to a “me first” mindset within the organization — something that still may take some time to undo.
Another story worth sharing — I remember one of my key people telling me they wouldn’t go on a pre-planned, regularly scheduled business trip to Detroit in January because, as they told me, “Detroit isn’t safe in the winter.” They very point blankly told me they wouldn’t go. Mind you, during our first five years I traveled all over the country in all seasons and never had any trouble, nor really thought twice about it. Snowstorms in Minneapolis and Chicago or heat waves in Atlanta — I was never really fazed by it or felt like anything was dangerous. So then I wondered how the 4.3 million people who live in Detroit manage to get by and do their work? Does Detroit close down for the winter? Does business activity cease? The same person also complained that our 8am to 9am flexible start time was too rigid (they weren’t a morning person). In retrospect, these should have all been red flags. We needed highly adaptable, “in it to win it,” fire in the belly types of people. But instead a precedent was being set that you could openly complain and tell your boss no. But I digress.
As you can see, through one lens we looked like a dreamy place to work. And through another lens, we were a hot mess, full of dysfunction.
“As you can see, through one lens we looked like a dreamy place to work. And through another lens, we were a hot mess, full of dysfunction.”
Looking back now, the hard part is I created the mess. It’s my hott mess. And I take full responsibility for it. I was leading all of it -- I led us down a path where we focused more on our own individual comfort levels and our own individual needs, rather than pushing our people toward learning and evolving in their roles in ways the company as a whole really needed. The truth is, I also cared too much about what people thought about me. I cared more about being a well-liked, popular boss than running a healthy, high functioning business. That was a hard, albeit valuable lesson, that I had to learn the hard way.
Core Values Really Do Matter
One of my single biggest takeaways throughout my entire journey as a leader and entrepreneur is how having clear, strong core values absolutely have to matter within any organization. They’re one of the most important things. No matter how much you may roll your eyes or think vision, values and purpose are some kind of corporate BS — I’m sorry, but you’re wrong. Moreover, whenever it’s clear someone on the team isn’t aligned with our values or isn’t on board with our vision or our purpose or our core inner philosophies, that’s an opportunity to review how they fit into the organization and consider if a transition is needed. Once you have a clear and consistent framework to work within, people matters suddenly get very objective and easy to manage. Making the necessary, hard decisions get much easier.
One of the most impactful things we’ve done recently is taking a closer look at our core values to see if they still represent who we are and what we believe in. Our core values were originally established shortly after we started, about 9 years ago — so we knew they were ripe for some re-work. In reviewing them, we followed a new process (thanks to EOS, via Traction) for getting clear about our core values. It was an illuminating exercise that gave so much more meaning and practical use around our core values. If you’re curious about them — our revised, reframed, and remixed core values can be found here. In short time, they’ve been hugely impactful. It’s as if we were feeling our way around in the dark and then suddenly we found the light switch and flipped it on.
I also learned that when people decide to regularly complain, gossip, backchannel, and behave insubordinately, against the parts of their job they don’t like — that’s a clear and obvious sign that our company probably isn’t the best place for them to be. And when someone writes on their exit interview or anonymously on Glassdoor that they think DISC assessments are creepy… or they think our morning stand-up huddles are lame… or they think occasional (and totally optional) meditation sessions feel cult-y — these present some pretty clear and obvious affirmations that we weren’t the right place for them to work. The good news is there’s an abundance of jobs and places to work in the world, and unemployment remains at record lows. So odds are pretty strong that most people can eventually find their place in the world.
At this point, you might be wondering how we’ve been so successful, given everything I’ve gone to such lengths to describe in this essay. The truth almost plays out like a story problem case study from business school. The truth is our hockey stick, our sustained high growth and continued success is literally THE THING that masked our internal dysfunction and failure. It certainly blinded me. Because things were going so well for so long from a key metrics and financial standpoint (ie: revenue, profit, cash, growth), it was far too easy to ignore the shadow side sneaking up from the inside. It was almost like a story of a physically fit, healthy person who’s feeling good and is completely unaware they have a serious illness growing inside of them. Sustained success can mask a lot of things.
“The truth is our hockey stick, our sustained high growth and continued success is literally THE THING that masked our internal dysfunction and failure. It certainly blinded me.”
You can learn more from failure than success.
As you know by now, Marmoset experienced wild and unprecedented success for about eight years. It was constant and non-stop highs. Nearly every quarter was a record breaking quarter. Then we finally had our dark moment — a run of about 6 months in 2018 that got hard. For the first time in the story of our company we had to actually manage our expenses, tighten the belt, make some budget cuts, including staff. For the first time, things got hard. And while it feels weird to say this out loud, I’m thankful for all of it.
The beauty of that hard run in 2018 was for the first time it brightly illuminated some problems we needed to see. We became aware of a cancer growing within us.
As legendary computer scientist Fred Brooks once explained, “You can learn more from failure than success. In failure you’re forced to find out what part did not work. But in success you can believe everything you did was great, when in fact some parts may not have worked at all. Failure forces you to face reality.” This is our story of 2018.
Getting the Right People on the Bus
While I’m thankful to say we’re back on track now, I will forever be grateful for the hard lessons failure taught me. The single biggest thing I learned though all of it is how crucial it is to have our Purpose, Vision, and Values be crystal clear, consistent and strong among our people. For recruiting and hiring the right people. For developing and growing the right people. And for retaining the right people.
Along these lines, Jim Collins presents one of the most brilliant business concepts of all-time in his best-selling book, “Good to Great.” Collin’s framework is about “getting the right people on the bus.” Technically speaking, he says you have to determine “who first, then what, ” suggesting it’s futile to work on business plans, strategy, brand or anything before you first focus on your people. As Collins presents, it’s about getting the right people, into the right seats, doing the right things. First who, then what.
I believe with my whole heart, mind and soul that the single most important factor for the success or failure of any business or organization is their people. And more specifically, it’s about Jim Collins’ “people on the bus” concept. Some of the most brilliant business ideas and innovations in the history of humankind have crashed, burned and faded into obscurity because they failed to understand the importance of people first. It seems so obvious, yet I’ve found far too many people truly don’t get it.
“I believe with my whole heart, mind and soul that the single most important factor for the success or failure of any business or organization is their people.… as Jim Collins puts it — having the right people, in the right seats, doing the right things.”
You’re only as good as your people. Full stop, no exceptions. In 2018 I experienced this truth the hard way...and we’ve spent the past 8 months doing the hard work necessary to turn it around. The impact so far has been incredible and I continue to learn a ton every day.
Expectations for Career Growth
While recently taking a continuing education course on MIT’s Executive Education campus, I learned about a concept presented by author and frequent HBR contributor, Whitney Johnson, called “The S Curve of Learning” -- highlighted in her new book, “Build an A-Team: Play to Their Strengths and Lead Them Up the Learning Curve.” The concept presents the growth curve for most people in professional roles, and Whitney explained it takes most people about 3-5 years to complete the curve, assuming they enter their role relatively low in experience, with high potential -- and assuming we develop them well during their tenure. Once they achieve a level of mastery in their role, the options are to find a new role (ie: a new challenge and growth opportunity) or be prepared for them to leave. I may be oversimplifying Whitney’s concept here, but I believe it to be true no less.