If I walked into your office and asked any of your employees what your mission, vision, or values are, what would I hear? Never mind that this question is the clichéd intro of many a business conference motivational speaker, the truth hurts. Nobody at Livewire (including me) knew the answer to these questions by heart five months ago. That’s all changed now. Getting there sucked. Here’s our story.
As entrepreneurs, we started our businesses as doers. We quickly reached our maximum “do” and had to become managers. Those of you who’ve reached the point of managing managers out of necessity have become leaders. Everything out of necessity. Doer, manager, and leader. In the process, we assume everyone around us is aligned with what we’re doing and where we’re headed. While a doer or manager, they probably are. We can touch every job and know every customer: a control freak’s dream. As we transition to leader, that becomes exponentially more difficult. What do we do? Statistically, most of us either micro-manage or abdicate, hoping for the best. The result is disillusionment and low morale. Again, none of this is an earth-shattering revelation, and closely mimics Michael Gerber’s E-Myth predictions (required reading for any entrepreneur).
You’ve all heard this stuff before. Around the CEDIA Business Xchange, I’d decided I’d heard enough. That may have had something to do with attending consecutive rah-rah, work-on-the-business-not-in-the-business events over two weeks (not recommended). Livewire was going to become one of those “great places to work” I’d heard so much about, or die trying.
The Livewire Vivid Vision. Click for higher resolution.
If you’re anything like me, you probably have a mission statement, vision, and values written out. Ours have been collecting dust for five to 10 years, and were written at the encouragement of numerous mentors and consultants (not my idea). We didn’t talk about them or measure any behaviors around them. How could I possibly expect anyone to know them? Hell, I didn’t know them. I thought the whole process was a bunch of corporate schlock embodying the precise nonsense I fled when deciding to become an entrepreneur (think Office Space). The trouble is, entrepreneurs have to hire employees. Employees need structure, goals, mission, vision, and values laid out for them. This is another lesson that’s taken me years to grasp. I couldn’t believe that my dream environment I’d created, the empty sandbox, the opportunity for ultimate autonomy with my “make it happen” ethos needed RULES? I felt like rules and having to direct employees was beneath them. They had common sense; they should just know what’s next and roll with it. I couldn’t have been more wrong.
I decided after Business Xchange I would drink the Kool-Aid. A few entrepreneur-friendly observations helped me along the way. First, happiness is good for the bottom line. Happy people are more productive. More productive, more profit. Easy. Next, after reading The Boys In The Boat (great read, a detailed account of the University of Washington crew taking on and beating the Nazis in the 1936 Olympics), I realized we all needed to row together to accomplish our goals (another cliché, but it hit home for me). Even one employee out of alignment could set us adrift. Alignment around mission, vision, and values appeared to be the easiest way to get that going. Another benefit to going this route is that all my other attempts at alignment have failed. Maybe by reading this, I can save someone a few years of struggle. Stop asking yourself why your employees don’t take more initiative, and why they’re not ultimately more entrepreneurial in their behaviors. If they were more entrepreneurial, they’d be entrepreneurs. Employees are different. Deal with it.
On the way back from the Business Xchange, I wrote out our “Vivid Vision.” It’s a detailed picture of our company in three years, written in the present tense. I got the idea from rah-rah event number one, where Cameron Herold extolled the virtues of the “Vivid Vision” detailed in his book, Double Double. The idea is to rally your employees, customers and vendors around it and get them to buy in. The jury’s still out on this one, but I did enjoy the experience of writing it out using Herold’s prescribed method; by hand on blank paper. It felt great to let the words escape and land on the paper.
I set about knocking the dust off our mission, vision, and values when I returned to Livewire. It turned out we’d already rolled them into our training program. Because I didn’t buy in and assumed that this was something for them (our employees), all meaning was stripped out. As soon as I started to buy in myself, it’s amazing what started taking place.
Our operations manager had posters made up of our mission, vision, and values and posted them around our office (again, I know that sounds clichéd and I had to get over that part as well). We started referring to the posters in our meetings and using language like “living the values.” This included focusing on one value per week and encouraging peer praise around that value. So far, so good. Each week, the best example of “living the values” is awarded public praise and a prize of two hours paid time off. Note to entrepreneurs: true to form, employees observe and draw conclusions from everything you do, including choice or differentiation in prizes. I made the mistake of varying the prizes and the employees publicly expressed their discontent at the perceived unfairness of this in our all-hands meeting, killing the point we were trying to make. If I had to do it over again, I would make the prize each week the same.
Employees immediately began reacting to the changes. Most have welcomed the focus on mission, vision, and values with excitement. Others, not so much. Something that’s helped me tremendously is the matrix Cameron Herold showed us (see below). It focuses on performance and values. He says to handcuff (keep) the folks demonstrating high performance, high values. Train those with low performance and high values. Fire anyone with low/high performance and low values. That was a rude awakening. How many employees do you have in the high performance, low values bucket? That one’s the hardest. There are so many excuses we make for those employees.
Cameron Herold’s matrix.
Something amazing is happening now. The organization is purging employees not living the values. We’ve had three resignations in the past month with just as many new hires. We’re transforming as a result of the effort we implemented in May. I hope to share more with you as we keep after it.
Stay frosty and see you in the field.