From Start Up to Grown Up

“It was a lot easier when we were all in our twenties, working out of our garage.”
The comment came from one of my clients.  We were meeting to talk about how some of the ways that he, now in his early forties and an executive for a multi-million dollar technology company, was behaving.  Specifically, we were meeting to talk about several complaints from peers and employees about his behavior.  People raised issue with his alcohol consumption at public events, his offensive language and brash communication style, and he was perceived as favoring people who reported to him at the expense of others.  Bottom line, both he and the company he helped create were at risk of harm to their reputation and the potential of one or more lawsuits loomed on the horizon.
His co-founders had drawn a line in the sand:  “We need you to change or move on.”  Now, facing him, we were sitting on opposite sides of that line.  I was there to help him change, and he was deciding whether he wanted to move on.
Our initial conversation was characterized by his wistful recollection of the glory days – when they were 10 guys in a garage creating something that the world had never seen before.  They ate, slept and played together.  “We were like brothers back then.  We could say anything to each other, and we did.  We were on a mission and free to do as we wanted.  I loved those days.”
They got some amazing stuff done in those early years, and the marketplace ate it up.  Then, gradually things began to change.  The company grew, the stakes got higher.  Investors and shareholders began to expect more than just innovation, they wanted bottom line results.  And as the company grew, more employees entered the picture – employees who came with expectations of how they would be treated, not as cohorts, but as professionals.  The same behaviors that were legend among the founders’ fraternity did not translate in the same way in this new, emerging culture.
It’s actually a familiar story, one we’ve seen play out at Apple, Microsoft, Google, and Facebook.  Little startup gets big, then very big in some cases.  In fact, about 20 years ago I was talking with my sister about a new business I heard about where you could go online and buy books.  It was called Amazon.  “Amazon?,” she said.  My sister worked in a small loft-like office building in Seattle at the time.  “There’s an office down the hall from us with a couple of guys working in there and they have a sign on the door that says Amazon, I wonder if that’s them.”  It was.  I laugh when I recall the little place that I would go to buy my coffee years ago – they had two stores, one downtown and one in the U-district.  Yep, Starbucks.  Even more amazing:  I first heard the word “Microsoft” while standing in an open field in Redmond, Washington.  I’d gone out to this place with a friend to see where they were building the third of five buildings for their headquarters.  That seemed like an impressive undertaking at the time, complete with outdoor beach volleyball pits and running tracks.  Now with hundreds of offices all across the globe it’s hard to imagine a world without Microsoft.
Every business starts small; some get huge.  And no matter how big they get, it’s still people that run them; people with all of their different histories and perspectives, bringing with them their complex personalities and foibles.  Truth is, while the world is rapidly changing all around us, many of us retain some variation on the same personality traits and interpersonal characteristics that we demonstrated when we began our careers.  But today’s workplace requires a level of maturity in our leadership that matches the evolution of our companies.  The stakes are just too high for it to be otherwise. Quite simply, as headcount, revenue and visibility scale upwards, so do the expectations pertaining to leadership behavior.
The challenge faced by my client, the one I was coaching, is whether he still wanted to be a part of the company he built now that he was confronted with the need to change his behavior.  “Why does it have to be so formal?,” he asked.  “Why can’t we just go back to the way it was?”
For one, they had become too big and too public for customers, shareholders, or competitors to look the other way.  Regardless of any potential legal risks, the public reputation of the company requires adherence to accepted business practices that results in leaders being revered, not reviled.
His question exposes another core issue:  What is the value of a professional workplace?  Why does it matter?  The simple answer is that if talent, scalability, innovation, engagement, productivity, safety, integrity and accountability matter, then how people treat each other, and how leaders behave matter.
And ultimately that was what my client concluded, too.  He wanted to take the steps to demonstrate a higher level of professionalism and a commitment to the company’s vision and values.  The potential for continued growth and opportunity was simply too wonderful to walk away from.  He decided to change, not who we was, but how he behaved.  Here’s how he did it:

  1. He engaged in developing a deeper understanding of the workplace environment and the impact that he was having on his employees and the company.
  2. He communicated his commitment to make changes in the way he had behaved.
  3. He asked for honest feedback from his team, and from his peers.
  4. He listened to the feedback. 
  5. He was accountable for his behavior and changed what he could on his own.
  6. He enlisted the help of an executive coach to help develop some leadership competencies that he wanted to focus on.
  7. He also identified some challenges in his personal life and enlisted help from the company’s employee assistance program.
  8. Importantly, he stuck with it, working steadily over a period of several months to ensure that he sustained the changes he was making.


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