It was 95 degrees in the shade when we arrived. The picnic area boasted the usual grouping of wooden tables surrounding a central grill, all (thankfully) shaded by a long-faded overhang. Greeting us were the warm smiles of colleagues I haven’t seen in well over ten years. Sure, the lines on our faces were a little deeper (time is unkind) but the memories flooded back quickly, with hugs, cheek kisses and “remember when” dominating the atmosphere.
This was the twenty-year reunion of the founding of the best company I’ve ever worked for.
As I sipped on an icy cold beer and recanted tales of old, I began to reflect on what made this firm so special. We were far from perfect by any external measure (who builds a software product on OS/2?), yet we managed to win more than our fair share of the market, took the company through a highly successful IPO and eventually sold portions of the firm to leaders in each of the markets we served. Nearly everyone who worked at the company admits that their experience there was unparalleled and they have yet to find that kind of happiness again in their career. Several have tried to “get the band back together” by launching their own firms or working together in other areas, yet it hasn’t really panned out in the same way.
What was it about this time and place that made it so special? As I reflect back, there are three things that stand out. They may seem cliché and perhaps even obvious, yet these characteristics seem to be so elusive in today’s workforce:
Our CEO was the most charismatic, highly personable and infinitely approachable leader I’ve worked for. He did not sequester himself in a corner office or lord above his flock (despite the photo) but instead infused himself into every aspect of the business. He trusted his lieutenants and let them lead in their respective areas (hell, that’s why you hire good people, right?). When he spoke with you he was engaged, making eye contact, asking questions and truly trying to understand how he could best apply your existing or emerging talents to the business. And he had fun, subscribing to the edict that business does not need to be stuffy or boring. Everyone I know would work for this man again in a heartbeat.
I held six different roles in five years. That wouldn’t have been possible without recognizing each individual’s contribution and a belief in one’s ability to learn and grow. Several of those roles I created myself by identifying an underserved need and preparing a case for their value. And I wasn’t unique, as those around me were allowed to bring every ounce of their experience and perspective to the table, something I have never seen repeated at another firm. Despite serving the HR market, we didn’t do skills assessments, inventories or even complex performance reviews. Every day arrived with the collective knowledge of where we stood and where we needed to be. It was fascinating.
We won because we decided winning was more fun than losing. We didn’t always have the best product, the newest features or the easiest service delivery model, but we did have a celebratory style and this became a contagion among employees and clients alike. When a new client was signed, our CEO would bring the entire company together, we would ring a bell outside the main conference room and he would thank every single person who had been involved. This also happened when we brought a new product to market, met demanding end-of-quarter shipping deadlines, executed a new partnership agreement, fixed some tough bugs, and so on. No department was immune from celebration, no victory was too small, and we loved seeing one another win.
A closing thought
I spend an inordinate amount of time chatting with businesses about the hard decisions they need to make and the effect those decisions may have on their employees. And perhaps it won’t surprise you to learn that one phrase that comes up time and time again is…
“It’s not personal, it’s business.”
We need to change this mentality because it could not be further from the truth. Business is highly personal and is entirely dependent on relationships, so if you walk around with an attitude that your employees are just numbers on a spreadsheet or interchangeable cogs in the wheel of commerce, don’t be surprised when mediocrity or disengagement rear their ugly heads.
I want more of you to make business personal again because I’ve seen the magic that comes from people feeling connected to something greater than themselves. And to do this well, you need to actually engage. I’m not talking about another eye-stabbing engagement survey; I’m talking about human contact on a human level.
It’s quite likely that this was the last time I’ll ever see some of my former colleagues. And that’s okay, because I like remembering them at the top of their game, when we came together for a common purpose and when we didn’t dread getting up in the morning, going to work and slogging through another day. I wish them well and hope they find that sort of happiness again in their career. They deserve it.