A friend of mine recently shared a post about what it’s like to work for one of the Super-Innovator companies: Google, Apple, etc. It’s a great read (you should check it out), but one paragraph in particular jumped out at me “At Netflix…there is no expense policy. The only policy is, ‘Act in the best interest of Netflix.’…They tell employees to assume their best judgment, and they can be more productive if they’re not held back.”
Think about that for a minute. What would it be like to work for an organization that truly prioritizes innovation over cost controls? It means the company trusts and values their employees enough to empower them to act on their unique insights. Kinda makes me want to cry. Maybe you’re lucky enough to work for such an organization. In reality most companies, for one reason or another, can’t follow this model fully. Tracking First for example, is a lean, boot-strap startup. I hope we get to the point where innovation is our most advantageous use of funds. I expect it to be a while. If you’re not one of the lucky few who ends up working in a super-innovator culture, there are still guidelines you can use, to evaluate if the culture is a fit for you. Here’s what I watch out for:
Is it a CFO-dominated organization?
There are pluses to working in a CFO-driven organization. EBITDA is the metric uber alles, and these companies are often profitable, which translates into year-end bonuses, stock sharing and other perks. However, when profits fall, these companies downsize ruthlessly, and they tend to cut longer-tenured (expensive) employees first, to foist senior responsibilities upon junior people who are less qualified (inexpensive). That’s not always terrible: change can be good for organizations. But human capital will never be a priority in the CFO-driven organization. They routinely throw out superstars and keep toxic employees, simply because a spreadsheet doesn’t differentiate between the two, and can’t capture the fact that toxic employees are terribly costly. If you value innovation and team culture, and you find yourself working in a place where the bottom line is King, face the fact that it probably won’t change. If you’re interviewing with a company and you suspect it may fall into this category, ask everyone you speak with to tell you who gets the final say in planning and decision-making. You’ll sniff out Boss CFO within three conversations. Run.
Is everyone in management white and male?
Have you noticed that the companies in which management is dominated by white men are often the loudest in espousing egalitarianism and the quickest to proclaim themselves meritocracies? It’s possible, I suppose, that everyone who happens to be qualified to lead these organizations is a tall, nice-looking white guy (usually with all his hair) who played sports or went to a good school. Maybe. It’s more likely that you’re dealing with a leadership vacuum, and the denial and defensiveness that grows within organizations where politics and personal networks drive career advancement. Politics and personality matter everywhere — it’s human nature to surround ourselves with people we “get,” instinctively. If you care about working in an environment where merit-based advancement gets more than lip service, look for diversity (age, race, gender, educational background) in the ranks of voices guiding the organization. It is hard to create a diverse management corps. Companies that have done so didn’t get there by accident, and it is a sign they prioritize good communication. If you’re interviewing with a company that’s too small for you to fairly assess this metric, ask about their diversity goals. Your answer is likely to be a blank stare, or a discussion about how diversity can improve a company’s bottom line.
Is your boss insecure?
Favoritism, playing team members off each other, micro-managing, being too hands off, being too handsy (in the creeper sense), blaming the team, creating drama, going AWOL… You get the idea. To paraphrase Tolstoy: all competent managers are alike; all insecure managers spin their pathology in their own unique trajectories. If you end up working for one of these managers you’ll know it within the first week — and there are strategies you can use to cope. However, if you’d like to avoid working for one of these managers in the first place, listen to how they describe their team. Is the team integrated? A tight-knit unit that hits its goals? The manager will generally describe the individual team members warmly but in professional terms. Watch for the manager who knows too much about the team’s personal lives (lack of boundaries), or the one who sells you on raucous company happy hours. Watch for the boaster (it’s all about them), or the complainer (doesn’t feel appreciated). If this person starts making you feel insecure (and it’s just an interview!) listen to that instinct and let it guide you right out the door.
Those are the things I watch for — because I learned the hard way, by spending far too long in each one of these environments. I don’t work for a super-innovator company (at least, not yet), but I have used these guideposts to find myself in a company that craves diverse inputs, working for a boss who trusts me. And you know what? It feels great. I hope you’ll learn from my mistakes and remember that no one cares as much about your work happiness and professional success as you do. No one else can be trusted to ensure those things. It’s up to you to choose wisely.