Happy Team, Happy Business

One of my great interests is corporate culture and the anthropology of businesses, i.e. what makes a group of people engaged in a common task tick? How they can be motivated and empowered? What brings them together, and what can force them apart, can often be surprising. Consequently, I’m a sucker for those motivational titles in the “Business” section of bookshops, and I’ve read quite a few of them. Maybe I’ll write my own one day: Managing Through Fear, by Paul Blanchard. I can see the cover now….

Though in all seriousness, the hidden wiring of a business is something I think a lot about, not just in terms of how I can apply it to my own company, but in a more abstract, intellectual sense. It appeals to me because it’s not just the mechanics of commerce, but about constructing a social network in which individuals can grow and thrive. After all, especially in smaller teams or organizations, we spend longer hours with our colleagues than anyone else, so it’s important to get these interactions right. The problem is that with no shortage of advice, it can be confusing to determine what the right approach actually is.

Type “management culture” into Amazon and it’ll return a good 20 pages of results; every angle, every spin, every approach has been covered, you would think. On second thoughts, perhaps I won’t write that book after all, as there’s no point in throwing water on an already saturated market. However, I do think it’s worth saying a few things here about corporate culture, based not only on what I’ve read but also from two decades as an entrepreneur. I’ve worked with people of hugely varying experiences, ages and skillsets, and lesson number one should be to treat people as individuals. Still, this only goes so far, which is why actually empowering staff is also crucial. That insight has been particularly important for me, as my company is based in London but I spend roughly half the month traveling abroad. (I send the team regular photo updates so they remember what I look like.)

Modern technology is a huge help in that regard, as it has transformed business communication almost unrecognizably over the last 10 or 15 years. I regularly use FaceTime, Zoom and Slack to keep in touch (though I refuse to use WhatsApp). Nevertheless, there are always time-zone differences, conflicting priorities and the need for quick, on-the-money decisions, and your team has to have faith that they can act independently and that they’ll have your ultimate support. I don’t mind people making the wrong call — we all do it, and it’s a learning curve — so long as they demonstrate that they’ve thought things through and their principles were sound. I’ll go to bat for any of my team under those circumstances. Sometimes you just have to strike when the iron is hot. Empowerment means confidence. Confidence means success.

I also strive to encourage creativity. Working in communications and reputation management, I’m always looking for new methods that deliver results, and that’s why I seek to hire people with spark who can adapt to what I call “thinking round corners.” In other words, if there are three ways a task has traditionally been accomplished, e.g. promoting a client as an expert in her field, let’s try and think of the fourth way. Find an untapped news outlet, put a different spin on the client’s abilities or look for a new format. If the client traditionally writes op-eds, then maybe book them a speaking opportunity somewhere quirky, like a college graduation or corporate training day. That kind of creativity is worth its weight in gold, and will only blossom in a supportive atmosphere.

The last tip I’d give is to try to avoid people burning out. If you’re lucky, your team will be enthusiastic, creative and will love their work. It’s the holy grail of management. But sometimes people have to be saved from themselves. They might be working till the small hours because they’re enthused by a project, but on occasion you have to tug gently on the reins and say, “Hang on, this can wait, I need you operating at 100 percent, and you won’t be if you’re exhausted.” Fresh minds are productive minds. Everyone needs to switch off for a while, so you have to find a way to encourage downtime. The better and more diligent your team is, the more difficult that might be, but it’s worth the effort and they’ll come to appreciate it.

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