Grow Your Company Without Losing Its Soul

“If everyone is moving forward together, then success takes care of itself,” Henry Ford

When Far West Capital began, it was just the two of us. Cole and Don. I had worked with Don for 11 years and had a front row seat on what it was like to grow a business.  We’d gone through a lot together; we knew each other’s character, watched each other react to problems, knew how to complement each other and when to stay out of each other’s way. I consider myself so fortunate that I got to start a business with somebody like Don.

But then we grew. We got bigger, and growth exposes a lot of stuff. Most commonly, growth exposes dysfunctional spots in your team.

Take Starbucks.  It doesn’t matter where you walk in – there’s the same smell, the coffee tastes the exact same, the process works the same way, and if your coffee isn’t right, they’re going to give you a new one. But let’s say you started a juice shop tomorrow, and you’re the owner, and you treat every customer great and fix whatever problems they have with the product.  Hey, this is going great, you say, and you open up another store. And you train your first new employee. Then your tenth. And suddenly you’re opening up your 10th store, and the guy you trained 50th is training the 150th person, and something goes wrong, because you didn’t train that guy.  

So, Far West Capital grew. We had some customer experiences that were frankly embarrassing to me. We already had built our core values, but we needed to take it to a whole new level. It couldn’t just be me building it and telling the team what to do – we had to start doing things together, to define who we were and why we were doing this thing.

This is a hot topic these days. Patrick Lencioni’s 2002 book “Five Dysfunctions of a Team” is the definitive tome that I’ve relied on, but as workplaces and the very nature of work evolves, there’s no magic bullet – only new data. Recently, I read this great piece on Google’s quest to research the qualities of successful – and failed – teams within its own organization. The data-obsessed folks over at Google have long been studying how their employees interact and the factors that aid or distract from their productivity. For example, really productive employees tend to have large networks – in part, because they eat lunch with many different people. 

For Leoncini, and in Google’s data, badly performing teams have an absence of trust,  which grows into or goes along with lack of commitment, fear of conflict and avoidance of accountability that fosters inattention to results. A group of researchers from MIT, Carnegie Mellon, and Union College also found that good teams have two key characteristics:

  1. Everyone gets to talk. In other words, you wouldn’t walk out of meeting with that team and think “Susie really dominated the conversation.”
  2. Everyone was empathetic. High “social sensitivity” is a key ingredient. Want to know how sensitive you are? Try this test of your empathy.  More successful teams had a higher average score on that test.

So let’s flip these dysfunctions and look at their inverse. Here’s how we’ve scaled our culture in five positive ways:

  1. Core Value Nominations: If you want to encourage something, don’t shut up about it. When someone recognizes another team member, it gets sent out to all staff as an example of excellence and team. We average 1-2 nominations per week – and they don’t come from me. We want people nominating folks who are touching clients on a daily basis. We want them to recognize value in one another. The only reason you can notice someone’s brilliance is because you have the same brilliance.
  2. Get Comfortable Talking about Mistakes: Use every single opportunity you can talking about a mistake to drive your core values. One of our core values is PASSION. Underneath passion we say, “we care deeply about what we do. 99% is 100% wrong.” If you go to your bank and put in a $100,000 and you look at your statement and see $99,000, you’d be finding a new bank. We send out between $3 to $5 million dollars every day. It has to be correct every time, and when it’s not, we use that to talk about passion. You can’t share something that isn’t right.  We’re serious about our brand promise: “Earn trust; deliver success; no surprises.” If you don’t have the passion to truly care about your client, to really understand what’s going on with that client, then we are not delivering what we say we are going to deliver.
  3. Lead With a Purpose: I have a responsibility to constantly be articulating the vision, purpose and and value of this company. So, here we are. (For inspiration outside myself, read this piece we wrote on Whole Foods CEO John Mackey.)
  4. Set Training Goals:  Developing means training. We have our own little DNA transfer, where we are teaching each other every Friday, not led by me but by members of the team, to talk about what we do to live out what we outlined in our manifesto.
  5. Have Some Fun:  Every quarter, out of the Core Value nominations, we have a Core Value Awards ceremony.  The last one we had I the most fun that I ever had at one. We had a competition, and I like to compete. We broke up into silly teams. Everyone had a blast doing things like building a catapult to see who could sling a fake rat the furthest.
    We take others seriously enough, but we don’t take ourselves so seriously. We know not to read our own press clippings.

So, what do you want to improve on YOUR team? I, for one, need to eat lunch with someone other than my dog.

Let me know your goal for your team (and your test score!) in the comments here or on our Facebook page.


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