Can you build your business as a true community?

Work As Community

I find the idea of a business or organization being called other things — for example, “a family” or “a neighborhood” or “a community” — somewhat fraught, because work is work and people tend to have one brain/focus there, whereas family is family, your hood is your hood, your marriage is your marriage, your life is your life, etc. I don’t know a lot of people who evaluate their work and tasks the same way they look at the block they live on, although I have written about this “work is a neighborhood” concept before.

I think there’s some validity to viewing work as a community, though, because at base work is a disparate group of individuals hopefully aligned towards vaguely similar goals. That’s the same as, let’s say, a run club. Maybe someone is running a marathon and someone else is running a 5K, and someone is a run/walker and someone is a full-on sprint runner. Those are different people with vaguely similar goals, and we’d call that ‘a community.’ Work is often the same way. I don’t do the exact same thing as this person over here, but I probably need to work with them from time to time.

A dialysis company CEO recently spoke to Stanford Business School about these notions, and some of the results are pretty interesting.

First off, for those who enjoy video:

Second off, for those who want to make sure the person is vetted:

In his 16 years as CEO, Thiry has transformed DaVita from a company approaching bankruptcy to a Fortune 500 giant that serves more than 170,000 patients from more than 2,200 facilities. Envisioning the company as a village does not exclude strict metrics and performance evaluations that include public discussions of his performance as CEO, says Thiry.

Alright, so … the guy is broadly doing a good job as CEO in terms of how most CEOs are typically evaluated. He’s making money and securing growth, but he also seems to care about culture. Let’s take one of his quotes to start:

Like a mayor, an effective CEO needs to think broadly about the ultimate effect of corporate policies; consider the ends, not just the means, says Thiry. “Because if you are mayor of a village you care about the economy, but the economy is the means to an end, it’s not the end. You want to help the economy so you can have good schools, good parks, etc.”

This is crucial, and it goes back to work by Peter Drucker and others. Profits are the result of organizational actions; they are not the goal of those actions. Many leaders miss this and run around screeching consistently about revenue and growth. Those things are important — we all want our salary checks to clear, we all want bonuses, we all want to work for a successful company, sure — but they are not necessarily the goal of any organizational action. The goal is to provide a product, service, or entity that people value and their lives benefit from.

Here’s another key quote:

Management lectures about integrity, community, and other “soft” values are often greeted with skepticism by employees who have heard it all before, says Thiry. “Yeah, it’s motherhood and apple pie. Who doesn’t believe in integrity? Who doesn’t believe in team? What a dumb, pointless list,” some will say. “As a leader, the issue is not belief, it’s practice,” he says. “If I go a month without telling a lie, that is not living a life of integrity. Living a life of integrity is when you tell the truth when it hurts, when it’s embarrassing, when you didn’t have to,” says Thiry.

Also yes. Business buzzwords are everywhere, and rank-and-files often go to all-staff meetings and hear big dogs say things like “Our culture is one of excellence, internally and externally…” and they just roll their eyes. If you want another example of that — maybe the pre-eminent example — consider the idea of “work-life balance.” In reality, it should be a strategic advantage for companies. Over time, though, it’s become such a buzzword to most employees that it has no real meaning anymore. That happens in business all the time.

This CEO makes a good point, though: it’s not an issue around beliefs. It’s an issue around practice. You see this a lot with leaders and ideas like ’employee engagement.’ They get it on the belief side, but they have no idea how to execute anything on the practice side — likely because they’re so consumed with financial metrics (see the first pull quote).

I would assume most people want, ultimately, to run a company where employees are happy and doing good work (one way to define ’employee engagement’) — but it’s hard because most leaders and C-Suiters focus on the belief side and not the practice side. They can talk about their beliefs, but when employees see the practice as a bunch of meetings about money, money, and money again — then are you really getting the sense that your happiness or connection to an organizational purpose matters?

Here’s a final piece to the puzzle:

Earlier in his career, Thiry says, he wasn’t very good at giving critical performance reviews. “I was too intent on proving I was right. I’m right about the ways you underperformed.” Instead, a good manager needs to go to that meeting with the intention of being helpful to that person, even if it is a painful conversation.

Also crucial. Feedback at work is a fraught topic. I’ve written about it a bunch of times: here, here, here, and here for examples.

Just like many hiring managers hide behind HR during a hiring process as a CYA move, so too do a lot of middle managers in companies hide behind HR when it comes to legitimate feedback. “Oh, you’re looking for feedback? Well, we typically do that once a year, so we can talk then…” That’s ridiculous. I know I made a point above about fraught comparisons between ‘family’ and ‘work,’ but imagine if you had a fight with your sibling or wife, OK? Would you say to them, “Well, the next marriage review is in October, so I’ll file this away until then…” You probably wouldn’t, and if you did, you’d be divorced in about 2.5 years or less. But at offices, we do that every single day. It’s very odd.

There are basically four ways bosses can approach the idea of feedback:

The Boss Communication Quadrant

“Radical candor,” which is what this CEO above is describing, is probably the best. In short, it’s like this:

  • You did some things well.
  • You did some things poorly.
  • In short, you’re a human being.
  • We’re going to address both sides of this equation in a totally honest way.

Obviously that approach is very hard for a lot of people — who wants to openly discuss failure, anyway? — but it’s the most logical, and fastest, way to bring your employees to the level you want them at. I’ll tell you this much: it’s way faster than the annual performance review.

If you break down this CEO’s core messages, then:

  • Don’t worry about just financial metrics all the time
  • Put your beliefs into actual practice that people can see
  • Don’t be afraid of hard conversations

That’s a nice triangle for ‘effective leadership,’ isn’t it?


Ted Bauer

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