How do you explain how one company can go from 30 employees to 210 in two year's time, during one of the worst recessions in the history of the US, while others are barely staying afloat? Surely it must be some fancy strategy developed by one of those big expensive consulting firms. Or maybe they just rolled up a bunch of little companies to create a company that appears more successful than it is.
As a consultant who partners with organizations to create exceptional workplaces that lead to extraordinary results, I was intrigued when I came across Arlington, Virginia based, OPOWER. I set out on a mission to find the secret formula of one of today's most successful unknown companies. In my quest to learn more, I interviewed Dan Yates, co-founder of the company. I thought I would have to spend hours wearing Yates down before he would reveal the secrets to his organization's success. Imagine my surprise when during the first five minutes of our interview he shared the following:
"We've hired really talented people and have given them the responsibility, the authority and great co-workers."
"That's it?" I asked. "Yes," he responded. "But how can this be?" I replied. "It's too simple." Anyone who has ever read a book on management knows the strategy Yates has employed is the key to running a successful organization, yet most companies choose to focus on the bottom line, with little regard for their people. I just knew there was something he wasn't telling me so I followed up by asking, "How is it that you've been able to do something that few companies have been able to do?" Yates responded by telling me that it's all about discipline. "It's always better to wait to hire the right person than it is to settle. A people hire A people. B people hire C people. If the quality bar drops, you can come off the rails in terms of productivity and quality. The trick is to hire A people."
Early on, Yate's surrounded himself with like-minded people who were good at assessing talent. He gave them the power to hire the talent they needed and encouraged them to allow these people to do what they were hired to do. Still not convinced, I proceeded to drill him on the unique benefits his firm offers their people, such as Tuesday is optional tie day or the company kitchen, which is stocked with organic farm fresh milk and Cliff bars. Did he think he could really buy employee loyalty with an unlimited supply of Cliff bars?
"The business reason for all of this is to have the best talent. The culture stuff is a manifestation of this. It's a cycle." "Hmmmm ... ," I thought. Clearly there must have been some ridiculous suggestions from employees who had to be shot down along the way, so I asked Yates about this. "When you foster a culture of talent, and respect and responsibility, you'll find people don't do a lot of stupid stuff," stated Yates. "We want our people to ask for forgiveness, not permission. We trust people to do great stuff."
What's so intriguing to me about Yate's strategy is that businesses of any size can replicate what he has done. It doesn't take a big budget, nor does it take a three-day strategy retreat to make this happen. It comes down to being committed to creating a culture where only the best are accepted. Sprinkle on top of this large doses of trust and you have an organization that can do what appears to be the impossible. Grow while everyone around them is shrinking.
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Roberta Chinsky Matuson is the President of Human Resource Solutions  and author of the new book, Suddenly in Charge: Managing Up, Managing Down, Succeeding All Around  (Nicholas Brealey). Sign up to receive a complimentary subscription to Roberta's monthly newsletter, HR Matters .