High-Impact Entrepreneurship

HR tips from Dr. Dana Ardi

Reprinted from Fred Wilson’s AVC.  See original article here.

Dr. Dana Ardi is a friend, former colleague, and an expert in the fields of talent management, organizational design, assessment, leadership, coaching, and recruiting. Dana has taught me a ton about these areas and was a partner at Flatiron Partners where we made a big investment in the talent side of the business. I asked Dana to “bat cleanup” on this series on People and she’s done that in fine form with snippets from her coming book on Betas, the new archetype of organizational leader.

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“When someone asks you, A penny for your thoughts, and you put your two cents in, what happens to the other penny?” It’s a really great question, as well as being one of my favorite among many George Carlin quotes. And it came to mind when Fred asked me to contribute a guest blog post.

Having just put the finishing touches on a book about organizations that’ll be out next year, I’m happy to toss that second penny into the ring.

I consider myself a corporate anthropologist. I’ve spent most of my life studying the cultures of organizations, how they evolve and intersect with what’s happening right this second, and how the people in them influence and shape their communities. My consulting mission isn’t to transform established, successful companies – they’re doing fantastically well the way they are. It’s to assist them and other entrepreneurial ventures with the positioning to succeed with today’s workers, in today’s new business environment, and to help them evolve.

In the Information Age, workers in today’s organizations are accustomed to being sold, not told. Robert Louis Stevenson once wrote, “Marriage is a long conversation,” but so today is business – which is why companies have to change or else risk going under.

It’s pretty clear to me that the Information Age requires a new approach to organizing groups of people, as well as to successfully function within those same organizations. This approach I call Beta, to distinguish it from the old Alpha paradigm, and it trickles down to corporate culture, recruitment, and most of all, leadership.

What do all the most successful leaders, companies and workers have in common? In a nugget, it’s the trait we call self-awareness. In Heart, Smarts, Guts and Luck, a recent business title published by Harvard Business Review Press, co-author Anthony Tjan argues that all successful business leaders are skilled at just that. Of the four core qualities that he has observed make up most successful entrepreneurs and business-building, they know when to dial up…or dial town. They know when to emphasize passion, lower the pitch on assertion and bypass analytical smarts in favor of creative thinking or relational skills. In short, they’re as fluid and adaptable as the businesses they run.

What if you want to be there, but you’re not there yet? Here are a few things to to bear in mind about today’s and tomorrow’s winning-est organizations.

The Most Successful workplaces of the Future…

• Do away with archaic command-and-control models. Winning workplaces are horizontal, not hierarchical.Everyone who works there feels they’re part of something, and moreover, that it’s the next big thing. They want to be on the cutting-edge of all the people, places and things that technology is going to propel next.

• Instead of knives-out competition, these workplaces put a premium on collaboration and teamwork, and on building a successful community with shared values.

• Oh, and I’m not saying workplaces should become democracies – that would never work – simply thatpeople are empowered and encouraged to express themselves.

• Winning contemporary workplaces stress innovation. They believe that employees need to be given an opportunity to make a difference – to give input into key decisions and to communicate their findings and learnings to one another.

Corporate Culture matters more than you think

• The best teams are hired with collaboration in mind. People who remain in the culture are those who are dedicated to the ideal that that the whole is more than the sum of the parts.

• In the most winning corporate cultures, everyone has something to contribute. Leadership is fluid and bend-able. Integrity and character matter a lot. Everyone knows about the culture. Everyone feels the culture. Everyone subscribes to the culture. Everyone recognizes both its passion and its nuance.

• In winning corporate cultures, roles, identities and responsibilities mutate weekly, daily, sometimes even hourly. There’s a focus on social, global and environmental responsibility. No, these initiatives aren’t just good ideas, they really matter.

Today’s Most Successful Organizations…

• …look less like an advancing army and more like a symphony orchestra. They are divided up into sections rather than functions. Each section has a leader and every player is a member of a team that works in synchrony. The orchestra conductor may direct what the orchestra does, but he knows he’s not completely in charge. His sole mission: To impel the other orchestra members to play to the very best of their ability, while integrating those efforts into a concerted group effort.

• In life as in business, most people are not generals, they’re lieutenants. Nor do they necessarily want to be generals – they want to be impact players. Frankly, most of us are happy to have the opportunity to accomplish what we’re good at, and what we enjoy, so long as we receive adequate recognition and reward.

• The most successful contemporary cultures convey the message that it’s okay to be yourself, and to do your best. You don’t always have to move up; you can also move across. More important is that you are happy, fulfilled, contributing to the community and feeling productive and rewarded.

The Leaders of Today have to be self-aware – and top-down mandates no longer work

• There will always be the need for decisive leadership, particularly in crisis times (and there’s a touch of the autocrat and control freak inside every successful entrepreneur). But today’s world is all about collaboration –and launching and maintaining that “long conversation” that Stevenson talked about.

• The leaders of tomorrow need to practice ego management. They should be aware of their own biases, and focus as much on the present as on the future. They need to manage the egos of employees by rewarding collaborative behavior and teamwork.

• Leaders should strive to become what Michael Maccoby dubbed “Productive Narcissists,” tempering high self-esteem and confidence with empathy and compassion. Mindfulness, of self and others, by boards,executives and employees, may very well be the single most important trait of a successful company. Companies have to define the culture; the culture can’t define them. So pre-define it!

• Finally, companies need to understand that every individual in the organization is a contributor; and the closer everyone in the organization comes to achieving his or her singular potential, the more successful the business will be. Successful cultures encourage their employees to keep refreshing their toolkits, keep flexible, keep their stakes in the stream.

Rethink Recruiting

• Diversity is key – and by diversity I mean of thought, style, approach and background. You’re building a team, not filling a position. Cherry-picking candidates from name-brand universities will do nothing to further an organization and may even work against it.

• Don’t buy resume or credentials. Buy competence, track record, character and culture fit.

• Avoid hiring only superstars. It’s about company teams, not just the individual. Sure, it’s totally tempting to create an All-Star team, but in case you hadn’t noticed, those people don’t pass the ball, they just shoot it.

• Hire competencies but remember: hire with your heart. Make sure new workers fit into the preexisting culture, while also importing their expertise. Become their sponsor – onboarding is essential. Spend time listening. Give them what they need to succeed.

• Sometimes you need to hire aliens – folks outside of the culture who bring new ideas and best practices from other places. These people become culture-influencer and agents of change.

• New hires are more than just the college or university they attended. In short, don’t hire credentials, hire people.

• Character matters. Most people don’t succeed in teams not because they are unqualified or incompetent, but simply because they are not a good cultural fit.

• Act now. One of the big mistakes entrepreneurs make is they don’t act quickly enough. Put aside perfectionism, don’t wait for the perfect person – he or she may not exist. Hire track record and potential.

• If, looking back, you realize someone is not a good cultural fit, or is not getting it done, don’t wait to make the change. Sometimes it is just as simple as readjusting their position or redefining their role. If they really don’t get it done, then it’s time to make the tough call.

Be on the lookout for signs of a lack of emotional commitment from employees:

• People complain about the hours they’re putting in;
• Turnover is high, particularly among young top achievers;
• Recruitment is difficult; there’s little innovation or creative thinking; and
• There’s more politicking that there is actual dialogue.

Take note of those employees who have an emotional commitment to the organization:

• People give extra effort voluntarily;
• They become your best ambassadors
• Employees make personal and professional sacrifices to stay rather than leave;
• People feel free to think outside the box; and
• Meetings often result in lively debates and team action.

The employees of tomorrow plays to their strengths

• Rather than aspiring to omnipotence, and acting as though they’re the masters of all they survey, Betas focus on what I call “motivated skills,” e.g., the things they know they do exceptionally well. And instead of exploiting their peers’ weaknesses in order to attain and hold onto power, they encourage their fellow team-members to play to their own strengths so that the entire team and organization can succeed.

Self-Awareness is all (but don’t think for a moment it means you’re soft)

• What is self-awareness but bringing an intellectual and emotional understanding of your strengths and their weaknesses, your goals and their motivations to a given situation?

• Ensure that you hire self-aware people. Give them the proper tools, techniques and feedback, as well as the proper levers of success and sponsorship. Onboard people with the belief that they’ll be successful. Then make sure it happens.

• That said, organizations cannot be whole-heartedly responsible for their employees’ development; employees have to play their roles, too. Beta leaders are skilled at assembling employees, encouraging them to think new thoughts in different ways and challenging them to do new things.

If there’s a single takeaway from years of consulting, recruiting and observing both old and new organizations it’s this: People really truly matter. They are your strategy. They need to be encouraged and coached to pursue what they do best; to keep doing what they enjoy, and to participate in the success of your company.

To survive and thrive today and into the future, business leaders need to grow and develop their own self-awareness. Self-awareness means that you are willing and able to collaborate with employees, directors, customers and yes, even your competitors. It means that you understand that every individual in your organization is a contributor with varying degrees of potential – and that the closer everyone comes to attaining a high level of self-awareness, the closer the organization comes to achieving its potential. It means that your self-awareness feeds into your employees’ own self-awareness, which in turn ignites the overall success of the venture.

Now that Fred has made me the cleanup hitter, I’ll leave with this parting shot: Hire smart and hire the very best people you can. Don’t just onboard someone to fill a slot. Instead, build a community. Keep asking yourself not just what you want and need, but what’s best for the organization to grow and evolve. And remember what George Carlin said: “If you haven’t gotten where you’re going, you’re probably not there yet.”

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