All in the Family

One of my clients is a small-sized, innovative technology company that has been in business for over 20 years. It is a self-funded, privately-held company with no venture backing. The company is like a family; it is not uncommon for an employee to say they have been with the company over 15 years. At no other technology company have I felt that the company is as much a family as it is a corporation. Working together in such a close-knit group can be a double-edged sword. That is why they asked me to help.

People who work together for many years come to know each other’s strengths and weaknesses very well. They come to accept one another and resolve to work with each other through any situation. This resolution often requires being sensitive to other’s feelings and needs and taking an approach that minimizes conflict and drama in order to keep focused on getting the job done. The downside of this approach is that people will tend to downplay problems for the sake of maintaining group harmony.

My client is a group of some of the kindest, most helpful people I have ever met. Some of the adjectives that I would use to describe this group are helpful, creative, analytical, cautious and enthusiastic. Two words that I would not use to describe this group are perfectionist and assertive. Yes, this group appears to have weeded out or isolated anyone who would be unwilling to put up with the problems of others and anyone who would be assertive to the point of ruffling feathers. Not that this does not happen from time to time, but this is the exception rather than the rule.

At this company, there is a great reluctance to acknowledge that there are any problems in the first place. There are few systems in place to identify and report problems to the company managers in a systematic way. As such, most problems are raised via the squeaky-wheel method. (Cliché: Squeaky wheel gets the grease.) Once someone has a big enough problem and shares it with the right person at the company, the helpful nature of the team kicks in. They want to solve the problem for that person. The company has great strength in creativity and analysis. They bend over backwards and find a creative solution to solve that particular problem. The team will get the thrill of moving towards solving the problem. If the problem is simple enough, it will get addressed. However, if solving the problem requires any transformative change to the way the team has historically worked, there is no one there assertive enough to move the team through that transformation. The problem is addressed to the point that the squeak stops, and the team moves on to the next squeak.

With this client, I have two jobs: one tactical and one strategic. The tactical role requires that I fill the role of the perfectionist and the asserter. I have helped the company put in place the tools for collecting data, analyzing the data and reporting problems, much like a perfectionist would. As the data reveal the problems, the helpful nature of the team kicks in and moves the team smoothly through the problem-solving process. Then, it is my role to serve as the asserter to nudge the team through any transformative changes that will help them resolve their longer-term, systematic problems. On the strategic side, my role is to show how adding the attributes of a perfectionist and an asserter to the extended team will help them achieve greater results. The challenge is to do this in a way that does not dramatically change the core of the culture that everyone at the company loves.

I admire my client. They have built a company culture that is respectful of everyone. The company fosters creativity and innovation. The company has not only survived but thrived through 2 big recessions. And, it is a company that people will stick with, through thick and thin, for their entire careers. Unlike a family, these folks choose to stick together by choice. Seems pretty healthy to me.

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2 thoughts on “All in the Family”

  1. I used to work for a company like this. Well, perhaps not ‘quite’ as congenial as this, but very similar. I must say, it was a wonderful experience. I felt supported, secure, and free to work hard without worrying about who was going to pound on my desk next. The business climate today is miserable for most people, it seems. I feel bad for all those who will never get to experience the ‘family’ business.

    So, I’m wondering, do small, privately held businesses tend to be more like this? Is it just the large, public companies combined with our current ‘every-person-for-themselves’ attitudes that make for such miserable work environments?

    Have you worked with any large, public companies who have been able to hang on to the culture they had when they were small? If so, how do you think they do it?

  2. I believe I have worked with a large, public company that has been able to hold on to the culture they had when they were small — for a period of time. I worked for a small company that was purchased by a mid-size company, who was, in turn, purchased by even a larger-size company.

    At first, we kept our “small-town” feel for several years. I attribute that to 1) our leadership, 2) the mid-size company headquarters were remote. After the initial “re-organization” because of duplicate and redundant departments…., our facilities, processes and environment were left “untouched”. After all, the mid-size company purchased us because we were obviously doing something right. Why fix what was already working?

    When the mid-size company was purchased by the larger-size company, things eventually changed. The larger-size company had more opportunities, more diversity, more expansion avenues. Our group both physically and mentally merged with the larger company. We were moved out of our office buildings into a large campus. We were introduced to many other departments, functions, procedures, policies and opportunities that were not available to us before. Because of that, original members moved in different direction. New members moved in. And the “original family unit” pretty much dissolved. But not necessarily for the negative.

    Even families grow and grow-up. They move away and apart.
    I think the key is to constantly create your “family atmosphere” on the specific project you are leading or are involved in. Make your “project” your small-company?

    I agree with Loyal that larger-companies are more easily susceptible to the ‘every-person-for-themselves’ attitudes that make for such miserable work environments.
    But — maybe as project managers and leaders — we can set an example of “small-company” attitude within our small circle of influence. With any luck, it could be contagious.

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