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.