Thursday, September 12, 2013

Creating a Rock Star Culture in your organization

Pretty simple, but this is the core idea.
It is kind of weird to think of yourself as a catalyst. It occurred to me because I have had a lot of employees tell me over the years that my personal involvement has made or broken the projects on which I have worked. It has been explained to me that "when you're there, things just seem to go right and people are happy; when you are gone, we lose our rudder and flounder." I think there is something to how I think or how I problem solve that must be part of why this is a recurring theme from my employees, so I wanted to spend some time working it out.

Over the past 30 years as an employer, employee, and a contractor, I have had the amazing opportunity to work within, evolve, or create corporate cultures in ways that generate the best environments for people to thrive. You always want magic to happen, but it doesn't happen on its own.

"This is the final piece?" 
- Ian Black, manager of Spinal Tap
I have always seen myself as a road manager for creative teams. The road manager is not the star. In fact, they are hardly ever even considered when things go right. But wow, when things go wrong, who do you think gets the blame? Yeah, you know what I am saying.

Spinal Tap is not going to be 
pleased with the monument.
To be a good road manager, you need to know what your band(s) need. That means while you may not the best guitarist, you need to know they need great amps, cables, strings and pedals to do their job right. Maybe you can't drum well, but you had better know they need to have special microphones placed at the right heights and locations for their efforts to get noticed. Even if you cannot hold a tune in a bucket, you should know that singers need their monitors to have just the right levels so they can match tone with the harmonies and their mics have to be set at the right height in the right place on stage. You get the picture.

Led Zeppelin with their manager, 
the late, great Peter Grant. 
He "got" it. You should Google him.
A road manager has to know a little bit about everything so they can anticipate their rock stars' needs. They have to know the team members' skills and personalities. They have to know how they're feeling that day and what kind of pressure they are under in their personal lives. All of this factors into the final result.

Once you have the stage set up, the marketing machine has gotten the fans to the building, the sales team has sold the tickets, the merch table is in place, and all the other details are handled... then and only then is it time for the REAL rock stars to come in and blow everyone's minds.

Where's Peter Grant? He's not 
even in the building because 
he's taking their money to 
a safe location. Really. 
Look him up.

The thing that is really frustrating is that when you are the best road manager, people wonder why they are even paying you because you make the rock stars' work look effortless!
The reason I'm writing this post is because I believe that road manager work can be nearly effortless once everyone is following the same well-known and moderated rules.

It has been my experience that to create magical, emotionally compelling and memorable experiences for your users, your employees have to be in the right environment, both physically and emotionally. That environment allows creativity to soar in ways you cannot expect or predict. But how can you make that environment? What are the main ingredients?

This is the level of creative output 
possible when the environment is right.
Here are my key tenets for generating the best environment for catalytic reactions.
  • Clearly defined corporate vision
  • Clearly defined milestones / project goals
  • Corporate culture is defined in meaningful terms with compelling examples of their application
  • Hire and retain competent employees / healthy HR system
  • Better equipment improves performance
  • Invest in employees' careers
  • Make mistakes faster than everyone else
  • Celebrate the knowledge gained from mistakes
  • Bring wrong is okay, if you admit it quickly and completely
  • A core understanding that love, respect, honesty, healthy disagreement, and trust build the best teams
  • “No surprises,” unless they are good
  • Catch people being good as often as possible
  • Have high expectations that are actually achievable
  • Immediately celebrate milestones
  • Authority and responsibility are given in equal doses
  • Managers set and manage expectations and act as coaches and gardeners
  • People don't get fired, they fire themselves by not meeting well-defined expectations
  • Asking questions is a job requirement
  • Social media is a huge win, even considering the drawbacks 
  • Gamification is fully embraced
  • Give credit where credit is due; after all, it's free*
When things go right, I feel like I'm on the front row. 
We need more of that.
So, what's the catalyst that makes the reaction work better? One part of it is that you have to know those above tenets and live them 24/7. 

Here's my secret: you actually have to care about the people doing the work. Love your rock stars, because they are the ones making the magic.

I wanna rock!

P.S. Thanks for reading. What do YOU think? What's your secret catalyst?


These tenets have come from a lot of sources over the years, and they are tried and true. Much credit goes to the book "Peopleware." It is epic. I have picked up a lot of these ideas through the years from other managers or other books or even making the same mistake over and over until I had to realize that the universe was trying to tell me that I was "doing it wrong."

Credit also goes to Origin Systems, where I spent 6.5 years learning within the most magical environment ever. They let me implement some of these and they also had quite a few of them in place that I got to watch work or colossally fail, depending on their implementation or who was implementing them. Origin was also insane, but that's another story. Or maybe it is a series of books, I never can tell.

The most credit must go to all of the employees over the past 30 years that helped me learn which of these tenets work at which time on which project. You guys rock! Or, if you were part of the "Billy's still learning how to do this correctly" part of my education, I'm sorry for doing it wrong.

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