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Going from Start-Up to Corporate

My company has changed a great deal over the years.  We have gone from an energetic start up with a fantastic idea to a large organizationally stratified high tech corporation.  When I first started with the company in 1996, people didn’t care about titles and if someone had a great idea they were given the freedom to pursue it, even if it wasn’t their domain expertise.  Managers, directors and vice presidents came from engineering backgrounds and the corporate uniform was Levi’s, sandals, and company T-shirts.  Over the years we traded that casual approach for slacks and an upward focus.  There are people in the company that refuse to make decisions with others that are “below their level”. Engagement models are focused around the “right level of decision”.  My populist nature rebukes this culture but when I really think about it, the companies growth requires us to specialize.  When companies get to a certain size, leadership can no longer come from the grass roots as it once did.  Sure, ideas must come from all levels, but someone has to exercise their 51% vote now.

The other day I went to lunch with one of my better friends at the company and a consultant.  My friend is a distinguished engineer that had been around for longer than I have and embodies the enablement mentality of our earlier culture.  The 3 of us chatted for about 30 minutes and the consultant said, “You 2 are less like the company culture than anyone I’ve met.”  We were shocked.  We were both attracted to the creativity and freedom in the company and thought that we were good representatives of that openness.  The consultant explained that most people at the company focused on structure and appearance while we were so informal and results oriented.  The consultant also mentioned that there were many people now that managed their careers rather than the business.  This made me a little sad but it really made me think about how companies grow and change.

The symptoms of growth that I’ve seen have been that people are often afraid to make a decision or they are unwilling to speak up when they disagree.  This risk aversion makes everything take much longer than it used to.  We make decisions by committee and those committees meet regularly for months without taking action.  Frequently, the committee members will feel out the “highest ranking” person in the room and try to align with their opinion to curry favor.  The most common activity of this approach is to “get the data”, as if data will tell us exactly what to do.  Ultimately, activity will cease and the committee will declare victory.  Unfortunately, there will be no measurable results.

Fortunately, real stars do always stand out.  They are the ones that are willing to take risks and express their ideas.  These risk takers are not afraid to fail, in fact its part of their learning process and these are the people who become leaders that drive the company’s growth.  These leaders must be mindful of “corporate saboteurs” who fight change and cling to things that no longer work.  “Friendly fire” just comes with the territory.  Creativity and empowerment doesn’t die as companies grow, but its sometimes harder to see.  Look for the people who focus on customer needs first, rather than company convenience.  They are the people that bring more value to those that give you money and ultimately drive growth.


1 comment to Going from Start-Up to Corporate

  • Phil

    For more information on disempowerment of the capable lower levels of a corporation caused by stratification, see

    http://www.edwardtufte.com/bboard/q-and-a-fetch-msg?msg_id=0001yB

    This is a LONG read, but it shows how the use of PowerPoint combined with a stratified corporate culture at NASA allowed a catastrophic failure to occur despite the availability of good information from smart, dedicated people. In this circumstance, “pitches” replaced thoughtful analysis and the information chain failed as people feared to carry bad news to their superiors.

    A professor of mine once summed it up:

    Good news is no news.
    No news is bad news.
    Bad news is good news.

    I don’t know what causes a corporate culture to reach the point where people hide from bad news rather than tackling it head on, but hiding is a bad long-term stragegy. In the wake of the Challenger tragedy, physicist Richard Feynman observed: “For a successful technology, reality must take precedence over public relations, for nature cannot be fooled.” Tech companies ignore this advice at their peril.

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