Building an Iconic Entrepreneurial Culture

We entrepreneurs live in a time where differentiation can be the determining factor between success and failure. As such, we are constantly looking for that silver bullet that elevates our product or service above the competition. Yet in our quest for this elusive competitive edge, we encounter a myriad of challenges involving everything under the sun. Often we have people issues – we struggle to find and retain qualified talent, or there may be low performance. Perhaps we endure periods where it just doesn’t seem that we can do anything right for our customers. Bottom line – entrepreneurship isn’t for the faint of heart.

There is a differentiating factor that offers a nearly 100% guarantee for success – but is frequently overlooked by entrepreneurs. This differentiator is an iconic entrepreneurial culture. Well duh, you may be thinking. How could this possibly be overlooked? The reason is the fact that it takes a long time to build an iconic entrepreneurial culture. And we live in a society of instant gratification. The key is to start right now with this process. By taking positive steps every single day, we eventually will realize this objective.

So exactly what does an iconic entrepreneurial culture look like? It starts with a clear vision for the enterprise. Where are we going and what does it look like when we get there? This vision should be inspirational and easy to communicate. Then we must get the right people on the bus. We recruit and hire folks that share our dream and are committed to taking the necessary steps to achieve it. This is where many attempts to build a culture fall flat. We’re in a tight economy and acquiring talent is extremely difficult. Settling for a warm body (because we’re desperate) may actually be detrimental to the culture we are building.

Our team members need well-defined written roles and accountabilities. Without them, chaos ensues and many things fall between the cracks. Team members also need the proper training as well as the resources necessary to accomplish that for which they are responsible. I’ve written many times about our Why – that is, why we do what we do. Simon Sinek has identified the nine Whys – one of which makes each of us tick. When we can match the roles and accountabilities of our team members with their respective Whys, we’re well on our way to keeping them challenged and engaged. Team members want to feel valued and appreciated, so we do this in a genuine and authentic manner whenever possible. We express gratitude for the contributions made by our team and we recognize individuals for their achievements.

Incentive compensation tied to performance can be a strong motivator. Of equal importance is ensuring that each team member understands the importance of his role in the overall march toward reaching the vision. And team members need to be shown a path for their growth. This may involve opportunities for education, mentorship and career advancement.

Developing core values for the organization is another crucial stepping stone along the cultural path. Once established, advocate them and live them every single day. It goes without saying that core values are meaningless unless leaders model them consistently. In our company, we’ve heard from many new hires that the reason they joined was because it was obvious that we actually put our core values into practice.

An iconic entrepreneurial culture nurtures an environment of collaboration. Leaders work to obtain buy-in for decisions involving the team. It’s an environment that encourages experimentation and creativity. We promote the notion of a “laboratory mindset” for mistakes. In other words, when mistakes occur they are analyzed for what can be learned as opposed to being used as a reason to criticize and bludgeon.

An iconic entrepreneurial culture is positive and optimistic. Fear is eliminated and conflict is handled in an open and forthright manner. Team members are honest with each other and avoid triangulation. They celebrate together and cry together. Systems and processes support strategic thinking – but avoid becoming bureaucratic. Staying nimble is the eternal mantra. Finally, the entire team subscribes to a customer-centric ideology that worships at the altar of the Net Promoter Score (NPS).

Creating an iconic entrepreneurial culture is difficult and time consuming . . . but it is possible. And once it has been achieved, it becomes one of the most powerful differentiators there is.

You can also listen to a weekly audio podcast of my blog. What you hear will be different than what you read in this blog. Subscribe on iTunes or wherever you get your podcasts. You can also click on this link – Click here to listen to Audio Episode 101 – A Tip From Warren Buffet.

This blog is being written in tandem with my book, “An Entrepreneur’s Words to Live By,” available on Amazon.com in paperback and Kindle (My Book), as well as being available in all of the other major eBook formats.

Exactly What is Accountability?

Here’s a term you’ll hear a lot in the entrepreneurial world – accountability. In our organization every team member has written Roles and Accountabilities. There is a lot of talk in the business world about holding people accountable. So, exactly what does all of this mean?

There are some leaders who are confused and think that accountability is a binary choice. They boil it down to believing that either someone keeps their job or they don’t. In other words, if someone doesn’t perform in satisfactory fashion the only option is to fire him/her. Otherwise there’s no way to hold that person accountable. Fortunately this is a misconception – there are many different aspects to accountability.

In some cases performance issues may be the result of a team member not fully understanding what is expected of him or her. The solution is simple. That person obviously needs further clarification of his/her role. This can be accomplished by making certain that the position description is comprehensive enough followed by a meeting to clarify the expectations and gain an acknowledgement by the team member as to his/her understanding.

Perhaps a team member is struggling to perform in a satisfactory manner because he or she isn’t adequately trained or properly equipped. The leader must make this determination fairly and then prescribe the antidote. In this situation it’s important to understand exactly which elements of the position the team member need re-training. After the re-training takes place, it might be wise for the team member to take a test of some sort to make certain that the training has been effective. Part of the analysis needs to be ensuring that the team member has the proper tools and/or resources to do the job. It’s unfair to hold someone accountable if the company hasn’t done its part in this regard.

I remember in my earlier days as a property manager, encountering difficulties getting a certain maintenance person to perform. He should have been able to close out many more job tickets than he was. I made sure that he understood his role, was properly trained and had the right equipment. After doing so, I began to suspect that he didn’t have good organizational skills. Rather than hand him multiple job tickets, I began doling them out one at a time. When he finished one, he would come back to me for another. This worked quite well and I was gradually able to help him learn how to prioritize. This type of accountability was a combination of additional training and closer supervision.

We’ve all experienced situations where a particular team member continues to miss the mark in terms of meeting expectations. Role clarification, re-training and closer supervision didn’t do the trick. Naturally this can be incredibly frustrating and our initial instinct may be to terminate this team member. But there are other steps in the accountability process to consider. One is more frequent performance reviews. The team member meets with his/her supervisor at the end of each week and is apprised of the progress (or lack thereof) made for the week. The conversations may become sterner over the course of time if there’s no evidence that the team member is trying to improve.

Suppose this team member isn’t making progress and doesn’t appear to care. Eventually more severe consequences must be taken. This could include a demerit type of action involving a write-up for the team member’s file. A second write-up might result in a probationary status for the team member. At the end of the probationary period – two weeks, 30-days, etc. – the team member could be terminated if the issue hasn’t been resolved.

Other techniques for holding team members accountable might include re-assignment, suspension, demotion, or a reduction in compensation. In the case where a person just isn’t cutting it, a re-assignment to a different role might be a relief and save a valuable member of the team. I’ve seen cases where the individual is really trying but just isn’t meant for the job. A re-assignment needs to be mutually agreeable – if not, a termination would be a better avenue.

We had a situation where a senior member of our firm was abusive to the administrative staff. She was repeatedly counseled and advised that this behavior was unacceptable. We then threatened to suspend her for two weeks for the next infraction. After another incident of abuse we followed through on the suspension. I was sure she would quit but she didn’t. When she returned there was never another instance of her abusing the staff.

Accountability takes many forms. The most important thing for an organization is to identify the different methods for accountability and have a process for their use.  

You can also listen to a weekly audio podcast of my blog. What you hear will be different than what you read in this blog. Subscribe on iTunes or wherever you get your podcasts. You can also click on this link – Click here to listen to Audio Episode 77 – Anatomy of an Entrepreneur.

This blog is being written in tandem with my book, “An Entrepreneur’s Words to Live By,” available on Amazon.com in paperback and Kindle (My Book), as well as being available in all of the other major eBook formats.

Urgent Care

Allow me to set the scene. We are about to embark upon a major project that could make or break our company. There are a wide range of complexities involving this project and it will require a supreme effort from our entire team to successfully bring it all together. But there’s just one problem. Invariably someone on the team is not as responsive as necessary or doesn’t seem to possess the same sense of urgency as does everyone else. As a result the ball gets dropped and we fail. Alternatively, others on the team step in to pick up the slack which creates resentment and hard feelings. How do we effectively deal with this rogue team member that is at the center of all this?

There are a number of steps that can be taken to stack the deck in our favor when it comes to ensuring responsiveness and urgency. Step one is to develop clear written roles and accountabilities for each member of the team. Considerable thought should be given to this process so that a high level of precision in role definition can be attained. Being as comprehensive as possible in describing a role will produce clarity. Vague and generic verbiage muddles the picture and may lead to confusion later on. As team members we have overall roles and accountabilities. For major projects it’s a good idea to dive even deeper into a separate set of intentions for each of us relative to the specific matter at hand.

Step two involves gaining a commitment from each team member. One of the best ways to accomplish this is to hold a team meeting to reaffirm the vision for the project. For example, suppose we are developing a proposal to win a major piece of business. We assemble the team that will be creating and implementing the proposal and paint the picture of what it looks like when we win (vision). In the meeting we review team member roles and accountabilities and ask each person to make a verbal (and maybe even written) commitment to do their part in this endeavor. It’s critical that this commitment be made among those on the team and not just to the enterprise.

The third step is for the team leader(s) to make an assessment of the capabilities of each team member. The roles and accountabilities have already been established for each position that will participate in the project. Will the individuals who fill those positions be able to perform the tasks assigned to them? And do they have the tools and resources that are needed to prosecute their roles effectively? If it’s determined that a team member isn’t equipped for his or her role – i.e. skills, training or experience – then that person becomes the weak link in the chain. A decision must be made at the outset whether or not to replace that team member with someone else, or be prepared to provide greater than normal support for that individual.

Finally, team members should be encouraged to set their own deadlines so long as they are compatible with the overall project timeline. When a deadline is imposed by others, there’s always the opportunity for someone to claim it to be unrealistic. Accountability is first to one’s self and then to the team. Self-imposed deadlines are congruent with this approach to accountability. As team leaders it’s equally important for us to be aware of all deadlines and check with team members well in advance of them. Then if there’s a chance that a deadline will be missed we can muster additional resources or take other steps to make sure that the train still runs on time.

Instilling responsiveness and a sense of urgency within a team is a process. When we clearly define roles and accountabilities, obtain commitment, assess capabilities and resources, and work with team-member established deadlines, the process should put us in a position to win the prize we are seeking.

This blog is being written in tandem with my book, “An Entrepreneur’s Words to Live By,” available on Amazon.com in paperback and Kindle (My Book), as well as being available in all of the other major eBook formats.

An early motorized version of a LICH ambulance.

An early motorized version of a LICH ambulance.

Hero or Not?

I grew up in an age where the hero of the day was a cowboy or someone like Superman. I think my favorite was a character named Paladin played by Richard Boone in Have Gun Will Travel TV western series that ran from 1957 to 1963. Paladin wore a black hat, but he was definitely a good guy. He took care of the bad guys with his cunning and his fast gun. He wore a stoic expression and generally solved the problems he faced by himself. You never saw him flinch. There were no high fives; no fist bumps; no complaints, and he was always the gentleman. Many of us grew up idolizing macho heroes of this sort.

Paladin is a wonderful metaphor for today’s entrepreneur. How many of us take the “never let ‘em see you sweat” approach and soldier on to the finish line regardless of the obstacles we encounter? I know that I certainly have felt responsibility for the hundreds of employees and their families that are integral to the success of our companies. And as a result, there have been times when I have sacrificed mightily to make certain that my colleagues are safe and secure. After all, isn’t that what a leader is supposed to do?

We entrepreneurs often spend more time working in rather than on our businesses. I will stand at the head of the line to admit that in the past I handled things that others could have been doing because I a) wanted to set a good example, b) figured that I could get it done more quickly than showing someone else how to do it, or c) wanted it done properly. After a while I began to wonder why everyone stepped back and let me do these things not realizing that the example I was setting was encouraging people to believe that I would handle it! I suppose at the time that there was a feeling of indispensability on my part. I needed to be in the middle of things to pave the way to victory.

So what did I learn following this path? I learned that no one saw me as “the hero.” They became reliant upon me and they also felt that I didn’t have confidence in them. Apathy became a real problem. The quality of work slipped because the “Lee will fix it – he fixes everything” syndrome was in full swing. I was burning out and not having as much fun as I had in the past.

As I’ve gotten older I’ve come to realize that if I really care about my team members and their families – and I really do – the most important thing I can do for them is to create a sustainable organization. Companies where the founder or key principal micromanages everything and strangles everyone are doomed to die when the leader retires or dies. I can’t bear the thought of that happening to the people I’ve worked with for decades. My solution has been to develop a culture of empowerment and coaching. I now spend time helping my teammates learn how to fish as opposed to doing the fishing for them. It’s my responsibility to hold the vision for our companies, but that has become a shared vision rather than just my vision. Delegation is a key element to sustainability and all team members now have clearly defined roles and accountabilities with training and resources devoted to helping them succeed.

Heroes come from the battlefield or burning buildings and not from the boardroom. Sharing responsibility is the best way to create a sustainable organization.

This blog is being written in tandem with my book, “An Entrepreneur’s Words to Live By,” available on Amazon.com in paperback and Kindle (My Book), as well as being available in all of the other major eBook formats.

paladin