Suppose you want to design the best company on Earth to work for. What would it be like?
For three years we’ve been investigating this question by asking hundreds of executives in surveys and in seminars all over the world to describe their ideal organisation. Many of their answers were highly specific, of course. But underlying the differences of circumstance, industry and individual ambition we found six common imperatives. Together they describe an organisation that operates at its fullest potential by allowing people to do their best work.
We call this ‘the organisation of your dreams’. In a nutshell, it’s a company where individual differences are nurtured; information is not suppressed or spun; the company adds value to employees, rather than merely extracting it from them; the organisation stands for something meaningful; the work itself is intrinsically rewarding; and there are no stupid rules.
1. Let people be themselves
When companies try to accommodate differences, they too often confine themselves to traditional diversity categories – gender, race, age, ethnicity and the like. These efforts are laudable, but the executives we interviewed were after something more subtle – differences in perspectives, habits of mind and core assumptions.
The ideal organisation is aware of dominant currents in its culture, work habits, dress code, traditions and governing assumptions but makes explicit efforts to transcend them. We are talking not just about the buttoned-down financial services company that embraces the information technology guys in shorts and sandals, but also the hipster organisation that doesn’t look askance when someone wears a suit. Or the place where nearly everyone comes in at odd hours but that accommodates the one or two people who prefer a 9-to-5 schedule.
2. Unleash the flow of information
The organisation of your dreams does not deceive, stonewall, distort or spin. It recognises that in the age of Facebook, WikiLeaks and Twitter, you’re better off telling people the truth before someone else does. It respects its employees’ need to know what’s really going on so that they can do their jobs, particularly in volatile environments where it’s already difficult to keep everyone aligned and where workers at all levels are being asked to think more strategically. You’d imagine that would be self-evident to managers everywhere. In reality, the barriers to what we call ‘radical honesty’ – that is, entirely candid, complete, clear and timely communication – are legion.
The reluctance to be the bearer of bad news is deeply human, for instance, and trade secrets will always require confidentiality. And we don’t want to suggest that honesty will necessarily stop problems from arising, particularly in highly regulated industries that routinely find themselves under scrutiny. We maintain, though, that executives should err on the side of transparency far more than their instincts suggest. Particularly today, when trust levels among both employees and customers are so low and background noise is so high, organisations must work very hard to communicate what’s going on if they are to be heard and believed.
3. Magnify people’s strengths
The ideal company makes its best employees even better – and the least of them better than they ever thought they could be. In robust economies, when competition for talent is fierce, it’s easy to see that the benefits of developing existing staff outweigh the costs of finding new workers. But even then, companies grumble about losing their investment when people decamp for more-promising opportunities. In both good times and bad, managers are far more often rewarded for minimising labour costs than for the longer-term goal of increasing workers’ effectiveness. Perhaps that explains why this aspiration, while so widely recognised and well understood, often remains unfulfilled.
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