More on employees

I’m frequently struck by the similarity between trying to motivate employees and trying to motivate my kids.

It’s not that employees are childish. But as my kids grow, I am reminded over and over again that I’m dealing with other human beings who, though they still can’t put their pants on properly, are determined to deal with the world as they see it.

When my daughter was two my wife and I decided it was time to get her a “big girl” bed and start training her to go to sleep without getting out of it. We said prayers with her, read her stories, sang her songs, and every night as we tried to leave she would wake up and throw a fit as soon as we started to shut the door. It was exasperating.

One night, it was my turn. I had gotten her almost to sleep but it was late and I was in a hurry to finish some work I had left undone. Sure that I was going to have another 10-minute fit on my hands, I told her that I loved her and that I was going to put her in bed and she needed to stay there. She looked up at me and said “Door open.”

Einstein never had a more meaningful Eureka moment. “You want me to leave the door open?” I asked.


“If I leave the door open, will you stay in bed?”


“Okay, I’m going to leave the door open. But if you get out of bed, I’ll close it.”


And in less than 10 seconds that was it. She stayed in bed that night and every night since.

As business leaders, we’re often stuck trying to get our employees to do things that would be good for our customers, good for our business, and good for our employees. They don’t often kick and scream like my daughter did, but they are often just as stubbornly resistant to change.

So we resort to carrots and sticks, company “culture”, “new and exciting” initiatives,  and sometimes just plain threats. Sometimes they work, sometimes they don’t. But they almost always guarantee frustration for both sides.

What we don’t do nearly often enough is ask our employees what they need to get the job done.

My wife and I were right; it was time for our daughter to learn to stay in bed. But our idea for how to do it was nothing like what it actually took. When we finally got my daughter’s input, we succeeded. We succeeded because we finally aligned our vision with her needs and she was happy to do it.

The problem with charities

I’m fascinated with charities. This blog grew partly out of my experience with the Intellectual Property and Non-Profits Clinic (now the Entrepreneurship & Intellectual Property Clinic) at my law school.

The problem with charities is that while many of them serve important functions, they serve only acute needs. In the U.S. this is partly a function of the legal restrictions facing non-profit organizations. But, more generally, it’s also a function of how we think about helping people.

We tend to think about people who need help as those who are suffering through some sort of traumatic experience. Whether it’s a shelter helping victims of abuse escape danger, a drug and alcohol recovery center helping people regain control of their lives, or a charity that builds houses for injured vets, these institutions step in when people’s needs are greatest. They touch uncounted lives and they are a testament to the goodness of the human heart.

There are far more people whose needs are nowhere near so acute. Many, if not most, would benefit from a helping hand. Some don’t realize it and others don’t want it. They go to work or school (or neither), day in and day out. Some of them have escaped a trauma and are learning to care for themselves. Whatever the reason, these people are out of reach for the charities but they’re not yet self-reliant.

Business, with its longevity and focus on effort, productivity, efficiency, and growth, can encourage and develop skills that improve lives. But a business that is focused on maximizing profit focuses all those skills on a single purpose that, like the charities above, serves only an acute need. And this focus, in turn, blinkers people who might do more for others if it weren’t for the single-minded devotion demanded by their work.

What we need is business that will refocus to a higher set of priorities. Not to the exclusion of profit, but to a perspective that puts profit in its proper place alongside the well-being of its employees and the value it provides to its customers.




Only the best

One of the most common refrains in business, especially growing business, is “we only want the best.” That is, we only want the best employees.

It’s no wonder. According to Gallup’s 2013 State of the American Workplace survey, 70% of the American workforce is either disengaged with their work—meaning that they come to work, clock in, then clock out—or they are actively working against the company’s goals by wasting time, ignoring quality standards, or simply stealing from the company.

Unfortunately, what many employees hear—and what too many employers come to mean—is that only the best will survive. Only the best employees belong.

Executives talk exhaustingly about motivating employees to do their best work. Invariably, some executives say things like “if our employees have free time, there’s more we can get from them,” or “why can’t we just put the fear of (God/their manager/the CEO) into our employees to make them do what we want?”

The problem with this approach is that it doesn’t bring out the best in the employees or the company that employs them.

In their book, Conscious Capitalism, John Mackey and Raj Sisodia contrast John’s experience in hiring at Whole Foods with the approach taken by Jack Welch at GE. Under Welch, GE’s policy was to fire the bottom 10% of its workforce every year, on the theory that people would then work really hard not to be in the bottom 10%.

As John and Raj succinctly put it, such a policy is “a disaster.”

Whole Foods has implemented several different policies to encourage better productivity from its employees. From working to create cohesive teams, to transparent compensation policies, to personal wellness benefits available for those who want them, Whole Foods’ approach has been to bet that happier, more well-adjusted employees will more than compensate the company (and, by extension, it’s employees and customers) for the extra costs it incurs in employing them. John reports that the experiment has been an unequivocal success.

In Touchpoints, Douglas Conant and Mette Norgaard describe a similar effort at Campbell’s Soup Company that Doug started when he took over the reins as CEO. On his first day at work, Doug made a promise to all the company’s employees that became known as The Campbell Promise: Campbell Valuing People; People Valuing Campbell. He proceeded to demonstrate his commitment to the well-being of his people by asking “everyone he ran into, ‘What can we do better?’ ‘How can I help?'”

John attributes much of Campbell’s enormous financial turnaround to the effects of this policy.

What John, Raj, Doug, and Mette demonstrate is that there is a great deal more power in telling people that they belong. This is not some Pollyanna-ish desire for us all to be nicer. Teaching others that they belong brings with it the need to have clear, direct, and sometimes painful discussions about what they bring to the table.

The greatest power in business cannot begin to be unlocked until we have employees who are trusted and who understand and support the vision of their leaders. It takes a leader who is committed to being only one thing.

Only the best.

The values we value

Lots has been written about corporate values. For many employees, “corporate values” are little more than words on a wall somewhere; an expensive boondoggle concocted to showcase How Awesome {BrandX} Really Is. In the worst cases, the plaque on the wall only serves to highlight how shallow the values were in the first place.

I’ll hazard a completely unscientific guess and suggest that the majority of American small businesses, the ones that drive our economy, don’t have corporate values written down at all. When you’re a 4-man landscaping crew,  writing down a bunch of “corporate values” doesn’t count for nearly as much as busting your butt to get the sprinklers installed and the trees in the ground before dark.

I can also definitely tell you what values really drive most companies I know. In-N-Out just makes awesome burgers and fries. BJ Plumbing will sell you any plumbing or sprinkler part you need, then show you how to install it.  Weber means barbecue. Fezzari is out to make the best bikes on the mountain. And on and on and on.

The values of these companies are obvious. Sure, they’re out to make a profit. Everyone’s gotta eat. But these companies don’t exist just to make money; they make money because they exist. And they exist because the people who work at them really care about what they’re doing. Even those 17-year old kids working at In-N-Out care about what they’re doing. Maybe they don’t aspire to be burger-flipping magnates, but I have literally never seen an employee at In-N-Out who didn’t seem genuinely happy to be at work.

So there’s a big part of me that’s suspicious of people who talk about writing down corporate values. I suppose that’s because it seems that if you have to write them down they’re not really your values and that if they really are your values then nobody needs them written down.

But there are some companies that seem to get their values right. One of the first I became aware of is Moz, an inbound marketing and SEO firm out of Seattle that lives and breathes by its corporate value statement,  TAGFEE (check out the explanation from Moz’s CEO and founder, Rand Fishkin). Whole Foods, Zappos, and Netflix are other examples that come to mind. Right or wrong, agree with them or not, these companies infuse their values into every aspect of their work.

There are a few values that are essential to this movement I’m trying to build:

  1. People first. Whatever we do, the company is here first and always to make life less difficult for its customers and its employees.
  2. Quality. No one will ever have a legitimate reason to complain about the quality of the service or the goods we deliver.
  3. Respect. We are honest, reliable, and courteous. Every time.

Hopefully it won’t take a plaque on a wall for people to see them.


A brave new world?

Welcome back. It’s been a good month. I took the opportunity to read a lot of new books and I’m excited to be able to keep building on the ideas I started outlining a few months ago.

I’ve thought a lot over the last few weeks about what priorities we adopt and, by extension, where we place the bulk of our focus and efforts.

Over the break I took the chance to read Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. It’s an interesting book but not a subtle one. Most importantly for this blog, the question of conflicting goals takes a central role in Huxley’s dystopian vision of humanity’s future.

At the climax of the story, the protagonist argues with Mustapha Mond, the World Controller of Western Europe, about whether or not society is better off for having eliminated poverty and conflict at the expense of truth and beauty. Mustapha Mond explains the trade-off they made:

“Our Ford himself [Henry Ford] did a great deal to shift the emphasis from truth and beauty to comfort and happiness. Mass production demanded the shift. Universal happiness keeps the wheels steadily turning; truth and beauty can’t. . . . One can’t have something for nothing. Happiness as got to be paid for.”

I’ll try to redeem Ford later. But Huxley saw Henry Ford, and American society in general, ushering in a new era where the universal happiness of commercialism would steadily erode people’s ability to appreciate truth and beauty. Henry Ford’s assembly line would develop in society an insatiable appetite for new and appealing, but ultimately cheap and insubtantial, baubles.

Brave New World is no doubt a bit alarmist. But it’s also sadly prophetic. In every choice there is an opportunity cost. Far too many people have chosen self-interest as the focus of their life’s work. Far too many more have been convinced that the business for which they work should have no greater purpose than its own profit. Neal A. Maxwell called it “the demanding cadence called for by the cares of the world[,] . . . maneuverings of materialism [that] would be comedy if they were not tragedy.” And in the process these people have lost the opportunity to make business do more.

This is really at the root of why I called this blog “Better than Capitalism.” It’s not so much that I’m out to prove that there’s some other economic system that will outperform capitalism, I don’t have anywhere near the expertise in economics that I’d need to do that. It’s really about the twin ideas that (1) there are way more important things than self-interest, even in business, and that (2) by making capitalism a means instead of an end—by shifting our focus so that business becomes first a way of lifting each other—we can achieve things even better than capitalism now offers us.