Change Agent - Issue 40

"Are you built to grow?"

Is your company built to grow?I remember hiring my first, second, and third real employees. Whenever I hired someone, I was sure that person would be the last hire I'd ever make. I agonized over all three hires and spent months training them to put up with me. Since everyone I hired was going to be the very last person I would ever hire, each had to fit into the jigsaw puzzle of my company perfectly. If I needed a left-handed crochet specialist, well, that's what I hired. After all, this was it.

It became clear that I was fooling myself when I realized that there were seven people working in the attic of my house. And there were more people working in the guest bedroom. And there were even more people working in the dressing room. My wife tried to put a stop to the craziness after she discovered one too many containers of yogurt in the fridge. But the final straw was when I tried to convince her that it would be okay to have people work in our bedroom, "since they would be gone at night, and that's the only time we need it."

Once we moved to our first offices, it occurred to me that a subtle but very real change was happening to me -- something that happens to an awful lot of bootstrapping entrepreneurs. Instead of building a company that would be profitable today, tomorrow, and forever, I was building a company that would grow. Almost none of the job growth in the United States over the past two decades has come from large, established companies. Big companies don't add jobs, but small companies do -- especially new small companies.

It's not unusual to hear about a tech company that has 1,000 or more jobs to fill. Visit the Web sites of most aggressive startups, and you'll see plenty of help-wanted ads -- even from companies that are in financial trouble. "Grow or die" is the slogan of the day. But for a lot of these companies, the slogan should be something different: "Grow and die." Many of them probably shouldn't be growing so fast. Maybe they should slow down, focus, and get it right.

But let's assume for a minute that hypergrowth is really necessary for your company. Let's assume that you've got your market by the tail and that the orders are going to go either to you or to a competitor -- whoever grows faster.

So the question is, Are you built to grow? If you're basing your business's structure on the principles invented during the Industrial Revolution, it's not very likely. (But there is a lot to learn about the way that those old companies did their hiring.)

For 100 years, the key component in just about any company was the factory. The factory gated growth: It doesn't do any good to hire more workers until you've got a factory for them! And once a factory was built and staffed, the goal was to tweak it, tune it, and adjust it -- not to overhaul it radically on a regular basis.

As a result of this heritage, most companies today have no idea how to organize for ongoing growth -- especially ongoing growth of independent-thinking, white-collar types. Let's say that your goal is to add 200 people to your 400-person company this year. How should you go about doing that? Here are nine ways to think about the task.

Decentralize your hiring approach. If half of the people working for you are able to find someone better than they are to join the company, that can simultaneously solve your hiring problem and dramatically improve the quality of your workforce.

One word of caution: This approach will definitely not work if it's just another program, or if it's run by human resources (the least respected department in the company). If, on the other hand, you pay your employees a bonus equal to what you'd pay a headhunter ($30,000 a hire in some cases), and a big part of the CEO's job is to promote this program, and it's a critical part of job performance, then you may discover that the program fundamentally changes the way that you grow. After all, evangelical churches don't delegate converting heathens to the hr department -- they charge every single parishioner with going out and preaching.

Don't just fill jobs -- hire people. Advanced Micro Devices occasionally uses this approach: When executives find someone they really love, they hire first and find a job later. Some companies even offer hotshots a "gift certificate" that's good for a job anytime. (Hold on to that blue slip: Someday, you're going to want to work at Intel, and that slip will get you a job -- instantly.)

Start a William Morris mail room. Barry Diller started there. So did many of the top agents in Hollywood. It's simple: If you want to break into agenting, get a job in the mail room at William Morris Talent Agency.

The beauty of this approach is that William Morris really can't make any horrible hires. After all, most people can do a pretty good job distributing the mail, and if they can't, well, firing the new guy and starting over won't cause a whole lot of service interruption.

By dramatically lowering the downside of a bad hire, the firm makes it easy to take chances, to get people in the door, and to let them prove themselves. Is it harder to get good people at first? No doubt. How many people want to tell their spouse that they are quitting their job to work in a mail room?

Start legends. One of the best ways to get people to want to come to work in your mail room is to make a big deal of the people who used to work there. There are plenty of companies that have famous CEOs but that keep their employees under wraps. Can you name three people who work for Cisco or Oracle?

By turning your employees into famed success stories, you run the risk of them leaving. But that's okay, because you make it more and more likely that dozens of other hotshots will come to take their place. It's worked for Jack Welch: Other companies raid his executive pool, and even more talent fills it back up.

All of these tips are fine, but what good are good people if you wreck them after hiring them or acquiring their company? If you're going to grow fast, that means that most of the time, the majority of the people in your company are new or are working with someone who's new. And that means new strategies.

Obsess over where people sit. Most companies allow their employees to get very comfortable with their spot in the office. It saves time and allows people to get into communication grooves. It can also ruin a fast-growing company. Here are the stories of two managers I know.

One manager took a hot, new hire and sat him inside his own cube for 60 days. That meant that every single person who came to visit the manager also met the new hire. It also meant that the manager and the new hire had plenty of time for side chats and data exchange -- a real-time indoctrination period.

The other manager took a recently acquired executive and sat her clear on the other side of the building for 60 days. He met with her four times -- about once every two weeks.

Who's more likely to catch fire? Who's going to influence the company in a hurry?

If you're hiring hundreds of people, you should be reorganizing the desks in your office every week. Create cells or covens or hives or whatever you want to call them. Intermingle people. Don't sit all of the engineers together all the time -- unless you want the marketing people to talk about "those guys in engineering."

Of course, it's not just about where people sit during the day. The company cafeteria can quickly become as segregated as the one in your old high school. Don't let all the jocks sit together. Why not offer old-timers a free lunch every time they invite a new person to eat with them?

Invite people over for dinner. How many kids does your boss's boss have? Is her husband a good cook? These are the little social cues that lead to long-term ease of communication. Knowing the people you work with helps make them feel more like family, which makes it far more likely that people are going to come to work with the attitude that you're looking for. It's way easier to lobby to have a new and challenging coworker thrown out of the company if you've never eaten a burger charred beyond recognition on his grill.

Publish a yearbook. Hire someone whose only job is to interview and profile new employees. Find out entertaining things about new employees. Brag about their past accomplishments. Take clever photographs. Turn your new hires into stars.

Distribute your findings in a book on an Internet-year basis, which for most companies is every month. And give your new hires back issues. That way, everybody has read a magazine-like profile of every single employee within a week of showing up for work. The result: People are more proud of the people they work with. The hiring process is much easier if you let prospective employees read past issues to help them decide whether to accept your job offer.

Note: If people aren't cool enough to brag about in the year-book, then don't hire them!

Send people to school. The best way to have amazing people is to help your current people grow into amazing people. And that means that everyone from the CEO on down takes two or more challenging courses a year. My favorites are the Dale Carnegie public-speaking class and Zig Ziglar's course on selling. Why? Because most employees are afraid to do one or the other. And because all employees can do better at speaking and selling -- even if they're not in sales.

Just think: If you grow your own all-stars, you can go back to hiring for the mail room.

Make everyone wear a name tag -- every day. That's my all-time favorite tactic. It's the real reason why I wrote this. Rule: If you forget your name tag, you are sent home to get it. The name tag is a powerful badge, the symbol of a fast-growing company. The name tag says that you are proud of your growth. And the name tag shows that you are serious about widespread interpersonal communication -- up and down the organization.

I once ran a project with 90 new employees, all of whom started on the same day. We all wore painter's caps with our names on them. And we wore them until every single person knew everyone else's name. It took two weeks.

At Apple, everyone knows Steve Jobs. He doesn't need a name tag. But everyone else at the company does, because there's no way that Jobs knows everyone else! So he should wear one too. It's only fair.

"Hello! My name is ..."

If you're serious about growing, put on a name tag today.

Seth Godin (sgodin@fastcompany.com) is the author of Permission Marketing: Turning Strangers Into Friends, and Friends Into Customers (Simon & Schuster, 1999) and the founder of Yoyodyne Entertainment.

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