We got to talking about people’s jobs. The unions my friend fights with and for, their members have ‘real’ jobs. They have a job that uses specific skills and knowledge, and they can say at the end of each day exactly what they’ve accomplished. There’s a clear sphere of responsibility, and a person’s job is to find the best way to carry that out.
Do executives have ‘real’ jobs? Do they still do things, instead of just going to meetings and telling other people what to do?
What if your job is to build a culture? Every company needs a culture: culture creates a system and a set of behavioral norms within which certain types of people flourish. A company is no good if the people who flourish are not the ones who are the most talented, the best at getting things done, and the people that others trust. Not having a meritocratic and fair culture is in fact the best way to ensure that your most valuable people leave.
When your job is to build a culture, as opposed to building a house or writing a report, your output is no longer a thing you can point to; it becomes the character and the long-term performance of the company itself. Certainly, you can’t take credit for the work that was put in by the whole company. But I would argue that GE’s Jack Welch is so widely respected and admired among business leaders not because he led the company through phenomenal stock performance (which he did). His biggest accomplishment is actually the culture he built into his company. GE’s had a history of strong leadership, but he really took it to the next level. He describes his job as consisting of just two things: allocating capital and evaluating people.
He spent an amazing amount of time concentrating on his people.
As a result, GE leaders were of a different breed; it’s widely agreed that GE’s core asset is not any of the various businesses that the conglomerate is involved in. It’s GE’s ability to grow from scratch the best middle managers and executives in the world. In one of my first jobs, my boss was someone who rose through the ranks at GE during the Welch years. He was phenomenal, and reading Jack Welch’s Winning made me realize how much the company had influenced his management style.
Culture can be a powerful thing. Yet it’s important to remember that a successful culture is really a unique product of the circumstances in which it was formed. A company like GE needs its business leaders to be able to work in almost any industry. But for a lot of companies, their culture is an intrinsic part of their success because it strongly selects for and develops people who have a core strength that is also the core strength of the company.
Zappos – In order to have any hope of successfully selling shoes on the internet, Zappos had to make customers trust the process, and had to make it easier and more pleasant than a brick-and-mortar shopping experience. Hence, Zappos's extremely customer-centric culture made perfect sense. The same culture would not make any sense at all at….
Bridgewater – A hedge fund that prizes absolute, penetrating, and impersonal honesty from its employees. In order to make transparent and rigorous decisions on its $100 billion fund, it needs to have employees that are willing to attack ideas and who are always above board in their trades.
Agile Development – In a start-up, development teams build applications that are frequently released, don’t have to be perfect, but do need to be frequently changed as the start-up figures out what its customers want. They also work in fairly small teams. Under such conditions, the culture and tenets of agile development work infinitely better than the traditional waterfall model of project management. Yet, agile development is very hard to scale up, and often doesn’t work well for creating big products, like operating system software, or anything that requires huge teams of people.
Any of these cultures would be a poor fit for circumstances other than their own. Yet, their existence where they are is what allows their organizations to thrive.
The chief executive officer has a job that consists of more than just building and enforcing an effective company culture. Vision is a big part of it as well; she steers the direction of the company, looks ahead and sees where it needs to be, and figures out how it will get there. But culture-building is always a crucial part of every CEO’s job, whether she recognizes it or not.
Note: The Selfish Gene by Richard Dawkins provided me the framework for this biologically-leaning interpretation of company culture.
Photo credit: jaypranks on flickr