What’s the best work situation you’ve ever had and why was it so? Was it working for yourself, a start-up, or a big corporation? I got a chance to ask myself that question again Saturday night when a number of us who worked together 20+ years ago at ABC Sports got together. Most of us hadn’t seen one another in at least a decade but like most reunions of closely knit groups, it felt as if we’d just spoken last week.
Let me explain why this was the best work situation I’ve ever been in and offer some suggestions how you might try to replicate it wherever you are. What’s interesting to me is that what I’m going to say was echoed by every single one of us in the room in terms of what we experienced and how we felt. None of us are kids any more and yet we all agreed this was the best period of time we ever spent over our professional lives.
- The boss was very much in charge. That seems like a prescription for heavy-handed disaster, but in this case it means he gave us all clear, firm direction.
- The boss allowed us to figure out how to accomplish the goals. He was smart enough to recognize that many roads travel to the same place and we needed to take those which we could navigate effectively.
- There were no staff meetings or other “process” items wasting our time. Oh sure, once a quarter or so we’d get together to go over stuff but the emphasis was on results, not process.
- There was the equivalent of a very productive staff meeting every morning. Because of the next point, the senior staff would end up in someone’s office every morning an hour before work officially began going over what we were doing, opportunities for action, rumors, and anything else. It was the equivalent of a 5 hour weekly meeting and many times more productive.
- The executive team liked one another as people and respected one another as professionals. We socialized outside of work and some of the team I still count among my closest friends.
- Finally, the boss cleared away all the corporate stuff to allow us to do our collective thing. He fought for budgets, he made sure we were paid well, he took the heat when something didn’t go as planned. Like a good parent, he wasn’t afraid to let us know when we’d screwed up (BOY did he let us know) but we never doubted that he supported us and we never felt like we’d get fired at any minute.
That’s the prescription if you’re the one building the work environment. Assemble a great team, give them clear direction, provide resources, and get out of the way while staying connected. It’s 20 years later now and I think most of this team would go back to work together in a minute if the opportunity arose. Many of us agreed we didn’t realize at the time how special an environment we had but we sure do now.
What do you think? Ever been in this sort of work environment? Is this about what you had?
A client asked me about the “best” social game company the other day. Like most simple questions, this one had no simple answer. How was he defining “best?” The one that made the most engaging games as measured by how long users were playing? The one that sold the most games? The one that was most profitable? Or maybe the one that creates games that really are works of art? Each of those questions has a different answer in my mind so I did what a lot of we consultant types do: I answered his question with a question.
Putting my confusion aside, that simple question raises a good business thought. Let’s ask it about TV. What’s the best program on TV? I might answer that as a fan – the one I like the most and which is appointment television for me: Homeland, The Newsroom, and even a program that’s not on “TV”, House Of Cards. Obviously, I’m defining “best” in a way that takes writing, acting, plot, and other factors into account. I might answer it as a former TV executive (which I am!): The Voice, American Idol, and even Duck Dynasty come to mind. They’re watched by some of the biggest audiences, they’re not particularly expensive to produce, and they take in a lot of money.
Which is the “best restaurant ” If one of Thomas Keller‘s places come to mind, I’d agree answering as a foodie. As a businessperson, maybe the right answer is someplace that feeds millions and makes over a billion dollars a quarter? Not that McDonald’s tops any fine dining lists of which I’m aware.
The point is that how we answer questions is very much tied to our point of view. If you’re asking them, it’s important to figure out from which perspective you want the answer given. If you’re answering them, it’s critical that you ascertain the underlying reason for the question in the first place. As with the above examples, your answer may be very different based on that. A little clarity can go a long way in advancing business success. Have you found this to be the case?
I see that American Airlines and USAir announced their long-rumored merger this morning. I’ve flown over a million miles on American so I know it quite well. Over the years I’ve flown USAir from time to time but it I’m certainly not as familiar with it. Why do I bring this up?
(Photo credit: Wikipedia)
I’ve been through several corporate mergers. I was with ABC when CapCities bought it and then again when Disney bought CapCities. I was at CBS when Viacom bought it. From those experiences I learned a couple of things that I think have broader implications even if your company isn’t getting bought.
Mergers fail. A lot. In fact, studies indicate that somewhere between 50% and 85% of mergers come up short. I suppose that part of it has to do with the reason for the merger in the first place. If a company is buying another to eliminate a competitor the mission is accomplished no matter what happens to the acquired company. Part of it may be the enthusiasm for the merger blinding those involved to the potential pitfalls or wacky financing. But I think it’s primarily for another reason.
Simply put, culture. Think for a second about new immigrants to this country. They may not speak the language. They are unaware of our customs. They might not even know our laws. All of those things create resentment – look at the news and you can find many examples of it. It’s not that they’re bad people – their culture is different.
It’s no different when corporate cultures meet. There are almost always differences in management styles. How employees feel about the companies vary as much as do their benefits. Lost in the shuffle is the fact that one company is not buying another – you’re acquiring people! Those people may have been trained to have a different focus and how they measure success might not align exactly with your expectations. As with the immigrant example, helping them to learn the culture and to speak the language is an imperative.
I’ll be watching this merger with interest. I’m wondering if and how the cultural changes will manifest themselves to the flying public. If the managers are smart , the next year will be spent making sure everyone is on the same page and understands the cross-cultural changes. If they aren’t, like the vast majority of mergers, this one will fail.
Foodie Friday again, thank goodness.
Apprentice. Man and boy making shoes. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
As we end the week, let’s talk about the professional kitchen, which may be one of the last great bastions of the apprenticeship system. Escoffier invented the notion of the “Kitchen Brigade.” This system is still used in many restaurants and kitchens and forms the basis of the hierarchy in which people learn. Typically, aspiring chefs take on the most menial tasks like peeling and prepping vegetables before they’re allowed to have a “real” station. What’s going on in that world is a business point as well.
Culinary schools have changed the apprenticeship dynamic. Now applicants come to kitchens feeling as if they’ve been through the grind of the line. Putting aside having never been under the stress of a real dinner service for days at a time, the reality is that they are “book-smart” and the real world is a very different place. They want to run before they really know how to walk. This from a respected chef, Mark Vetri:
I once had a young cook who used to bring in modern Spanish cookbooks because he wanted to make things like mango caviar eggs and chocolate soil. I told him, “Hey, how about you learn how to blanch a goddamn carrot first, cook meat to a correct temperature, clarify a broth and truss a chicken? Once you can do these things then, and only then, should you try to learn these other techniques.” Trust me when I tell you that José Andrés is a master of the basics. You should strive to be one too.
This isn’t limited to the professional kitchen. If you’ve ever managed younger people, many of them think they know the business thoroughly because they have an MBA or a couple of years in an office. The reality is that much of what we teach as managers are basic skills that either aren’t taught at all in schools or are given a week’s worth of attention. Listening, politicking, presentation skills, office culture, and the knowledge specific to an industry are generally not areas in which young folks come prepared. Try to tell them that!
I was managing people (some older than me) when I was 23. I was a department head by 25. In retrospect, I was lucky not to have screwed up more often than I did because I was learning as I went and much of what I was learning were basic skills. As in the kitchen, learning the building blocks of the industry and business frees you up later on to be able to do anything. Walk first!
I had breakfast the other morning
(Photo credit: Wikipedia)
with a friend I’ve known and worked with for 20 years. No, breakfast isn’t out Foodie Friday theme but something he said while we ate is. We were talking about our work – what he does, what I do – and he was discussing a rather large deal of which he had been a part. After describing his role he summed it up by saying “I didn’t really DO anything – I just helped things along and brought people together.” My immediate reaction was that he sounded like a chef.
Chefs don’t create the raw materials of their work. They don’t grow vegetables, catch fish, raise cattle, or mill flour. Many of them don’t even cook any more once they’re figured out the recipes to be used in their kitchens. They hire cooks to do that and after teaching them how they want things done they step back. Once in a while they taste what’s leaving the kitchen for quality control but mostly they do what my friend did – they make connections.
I’ve been a facilitator for a few brainstorming sessions. We’re always supposed to be content-neutral. The idea is to help the group reach their goals without imposing our own positions on the ideas being discussed. We help with structure and process but the participants do the heavy lifting. It’s important that the group knows that the facilitator is in charge, but that authority is never supposed to be the focus of anything. Frankly, it takes a bit of effort to get one’s ego out of the room, especially when you believe you can solve the problem.
The point is that my friend behaved like a great facilitator. He brought people together around an idea and helped them bring that idea to fruition. I think that’s doing quite a lot, just as it’s the big-name chefs who get the credit for the food, not the line cooks. It’s what great managing is all about and it’s absolutely doing something!
I went to make dinner the other night and was scouring the refrigerator for inspiration.
Chopped (TV series) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Eggplant, chicken thighs, some leftover San Marzano tomatoes were what greeted me. What would you have made? I did a chicken/eggplant curry – it took all of 25 minutes and was delicious. I thought about that as a topic for our Foodie Friday Fun and was reminded again about it as I watched “Chopped” on the Food Network. That show is a cooking competition where the chefs are given a basket of ingredients and told to make something using all the ingredients in the basket, generally in 30 minutes or less. The twist is that there’s always something in the basket that doesn’t go with everything else – flounder, lemons, capers, and olive loaf, for example. Perfect for business thinking, right?
The key to being successful in this sort of improvisational cooking is to step back and think more broadly – and very differently – about the ingredients. Olive loaf as a seasoning, for example, and not as a protein. It’s how successful companies think about their businesses. The iPhone wasn’t thought about as a phone per se but as a communication device with the Internet as an important form of communication. I suspect it was thought of in an even more broadly way – a handheld computer with voice connectivity, perhaps.
We live in a non-linear world these days. Thinking in straight lines may move us forward but it may mean we’re missing some fantastic opportunities. You might think of your company as being in the tech business. Maybe you need to focus on being in a solutions business. How does that change how your technology performs or is designed? The folks in sports realize they’re in the entertainment business – that opens up many new challenges but a ton of new opportunities.
I like Chopped. Improvising solutions under pressure with seemingly incompatible ingredients is what business today is all about. It’s inspirational to me. You?