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Archive for the “Culture” Category

Yogi Berra once said, “If you don’t know where you’re going, you’ll end up someplace else.”

It’s good to know where you’re going before you begin to go there.

My minister tells great stories. Here’s one. Supposedly true. It concerns Albert Einstein, who was notoriously absent-minded.

Einstein was taking a ride on the Metro North train out of New York. The conductor comes by to collect the tickets. Einstein pats his pockets and can’t seem to find his ticket. The conductor recognizes him and tells Einstein not to worry about it. He goes through the rest of the train collecting tickets. On his way back, he sees Einstein on his knees on the floor, frantically looking for his ticket. The conductor once again tells him not to worry. It’s all right if he can’t find his ticket. Einstein looks up from the floor and says, “But you don’t understand. I can’t remember where I’m going.”

There are many things I do poorly as an entrepreneur. I am a poor administrator. I am impatient with meetings. I’ve never been good with the quotidian details of spreadsheets and day-to-day financial analysis. I am a lousy technologist. My personal organization is frequently inchoate. And this is but a short list.

Nevertheless, I’ve successfully led the company I founded for many years. Probably the chief reason I managed to get by is that I was very clear about where I wanted to go, who I wanted to be, who I wanted to have as clients, who I wanted as employees and associates, and what I wanted my brand to represent. My goal was always to create a culture I could live in, a community that provided value beyond money, and turning a profit.

When I started my company, I typed my bills on an old Underwood typewriter. Even then (1996), that pretty much classified me as a dinosaur. I knew nothing. Harvard Business School I was not. However, I very clearly did know where I wanted to be in five years, 10 years, and 15 years. I had a clear, unalloyed personal goal. I knew where I wanted my journey to take me and what the tone of that journey needed to be for me to personally be effective, thrive, and grow.

There are lots of ways to be a successful entrepreneur. The entrepreneurial pilgrimage I prefer involves creating human value in the world and in my own life. My ambition isn’t to be a master of the universe. Though I have been successful one day at a time, money hasn’t been it for me. Profit goals are fine and essential to survive and grow. However, as naive a point as it is, it’s really necessary to know first where you personally want to go, if you are to get there.

Roman Stoic philosopher Seneca put it this way: “If a man knows not to which port he sails, no wind is favorable.” Thank you, Seneca.

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Corporate culture is money.

PaulI have always maintained that my associates and colleagues at  my firm Corporate Rain are more important to me than my clients.  Yup.  I even say it to clients.  After 18 years, my employee colleagues are my PR department, my marketing department, my branding, my essence.  I feel very confident that any of the 25 persons in my boutique executive sales firm would describe our tone, service and ethics quite as I would.  It’s a very secure and happy feeling as a business owner.

Last week I attended the Inc. 500/5000 Convention in Washington D.C.  I dropped in on a speech by Paul Spiegelman, Chief Culture Officer of Stericycle and former CEO of The Beryl Corporations, recently acquired by Stericycle.  He is also the Founder of the Inc. Small Giants Community, an organization focused on values-based business principals and inspired by Bo Burlingham’s wonderful best-seller Small Giants.  (2007, Portfolio Trade)

Paul feels that treating your employees with respect and care isn’t just the right thing to do, but the practical, profitable thing to do.  At The Beryl Companies he states, “Our company and our philosophy was built around the idea of employee engagement.  We created an environment where people enjoy and share commitment to what they do every day”.

untitledSpiegelman expresses confidence that a large part of his success in dominating his corner of the outsourced hospital call center market place was because of his commitment to his employee’s happiness  in an employee-focused culture.  He states his was not the cheapest outsourced service by a long shot, sometimes charging up to 60% more than his competitors.  But when clients visited his call-center or spoke with his people, the happiness and unanimity of esprit de corps was palpable.  Clients noticed and bought into it.  Speigelman’s 400 person, single-site company and his creation of ambient concierge service molded a core for long-term ROI, as well as healthy and sustained growth, through carefully nurturing the everyday happiness of his employees over a long period of time.

Furthermore, Spiegelman has recently helped found the Return on Value (ROV) research project at Benedictine University in Chicago.  This is a $1 million dollar, three year initiative which asks the question, “In small and mid-size businesses, what is the relationship between culture and profit?”  ROV seeks to show the monetizing proof of a generous, employee-focused corporate culture.  (If you want to read more about Paul’s point of view, try www.paulspiegelman.com.)

Howard SchultzAs I see it, Paul Spiegelman’s approach is basically an attempt to institutionalize goodness, decency, and happiness.  His intuitions and practical business beliefs about corporate culture, which I certainly share, are buttressed by implication in some of the recent research of Dr. Adam Grant at Wharton on creating a “giving” culture.  His research will be published soon in a new book called Give and Take.  (Note my previous post of April 30, 2013, “Adam Grant, Goodness, and Entrepreneurship”)

Certainly healthy corporate longevity means through-branding  a long-term commitment to corporate mission and culture.  Howard Schultz says in Pour Your Heart Into It:  How Starbucks Built a Company One Cup at a Time, “To be an enduring, great company, you have to build a mechanism for preventing or solving problems that will outlast any one individual.”  Thank you, Howard.

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Much as I hate it, I am deeply convicted of the entrepreneurial mandate for constant change. That is, change should be a value unto itself, not just a reaction to periodic business challenges.

As I see it, a corporate culture is a defensive construct erected to ward off and control chaos and the impact of existential business randomness, while generating a consistent and predictable profit. The dialectic of stability and creativity should ideally result in a vital organization that is both dynamic and stable. But if one is to err, my preference and personal instinct is to err on the side of the dynamic, on the side of change and creativity.

As you may know from past blogs, I was an actor for many years. That has had a seminal, if ineffable, effect on my instincts as a small businessman. One of my favorite acting stories was recounted to me by character actor and teacher Paul Austin. I never tire of sharing it. Paul was doing a Eugene O’Neill play with the actor Rip Torn. Rehearsals were going well, but, with two weeks of rehearsal remaining. Paul felt he had fully realized his character and was ready to open. He was in a quandary about what to do with himself for the last two weeks of rehearsal, so he went to Rip Torn and asked his advice. Paul recounts that Rip Torn thought for a moment, shrugged his shoulders and said, “Fuck it up.

On the same theme, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, of Claremont Graduate University, recounts a story told him by Canadian ethnographer Richard Kool, describing one of the Indian tribes of British Columbia.

(Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, p. 80, Harper & Row, 1990)

The Shuswap region was and is considered by the Indian people to be a rich place: rich in salmon and game, rich in below-ground food resources such as tubers and roots–a plentiful land. In this region, the people would live in permanent village sites and exploit the environs for needed resources. They had elaborate technologies for very effectively using the resources of the environment, and perceived their lives as being good and rich. Yet, the elders said, at times the world became too predictable and the challenge began to go out of life. Without challenge, life had no meaning.

So the elders, in their wisdom, would decide that the entire village should move, those moves occurring every 25 or 30 years. The entire population would move to a different part of the Shushwap land and there, they found challenge. There were new streams to figure out, new game trails to learn, new areas where the balsam root would be plentiful. Now life would regain its meaning and be worth living. Everyone would feel rejuvenated and healthy.

Essentially, the Shuswap Indians elected to “fuck it up” every few decades. It kept their business culture (if you will) healthy, thriving, and imbued with aliveness and meaning. They elected to culturally and institutionally discipline themselves to see existence through perennially fresh eyes.

The reason I am in business is to be happy and whole. Profitability and personal wealth, if they come, are useful and satisfying in this, but profitability disengaged from meaning and spiritual growth is a dead thing. Change is an essential palliative to summon meaning, aliveness, and salvation into any business culture.

Thank you, Dr. Csikszentmihalyi.

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