A few years ago, a friend recommended that I read the book Small Giants by Bo Burlingham. It sat on my shelf for a couple years, and finally last spring I read it. I should have read it sooner, what a great book!
Normally we assume that great companies strive to grow their revenues year after year. This is as close to a generally accepted business rule as there is. In his book, however, Burlingham profiles several companies that valued something more than growing their revenue, or even growing their profitability. They valued most what he calls “a culture of intimacy” more than anything, even if it impacted their growth. If forced to choose, these companies would choose a culture of intimacy over growth. I found this commitment intriguing, given my personal bias toward always growing the top line of organizations that I lead.
So, what is this culture of intimacy that these companies pine after? According to the author, it’s characterized by the company’s people loving the place they work, feeling valued, appreciated, supported, and empowered. The people in these companies never doubt that the company, it’s leaders, and their co-workers care about them personally and will stand by them through thick and thin. In these companies, the leaders of the company routinely talk with people in all parts of the company about their personal lives.
Burlington describes three “musts” for an organization that wants to cultivate a culture of intimacy. The first “must” is articulating and demonstrating the higher purpose of the organization. That purpose can come from a variety of things. It can come from the work that the business does, it can come from the way the business does its work, or it can come from the good that comes from doing this work. Or it can be some combination of all three. Companies with this type of culture can have a variety of different purposes, but the purpose is always about something more than making money. The key is that the purpose makes the work people do meaningful to them. It’s more than just a job for a paycheck. Employees are continually reminded of how their contribution matters, and why they should bring their “A” game to work every day.
The second “must” involves reminding people in “unexpected” way how much the company cares about them. The key word here is “unexpected”. Creativity is critical. Personalizing this effort is important. For one company, this meant the CEO went to baptisms of employee’s kids, bought a nearby apartment building so valued employees could live closer to work, and payed for the advanced education of an employee who started as a file clerk. Leadership continually looks for surprising ways to show employees that they are valued, loved, and cared for.
The third “must” is an attitude of collegiality. This involves the feelings the employees have towards one another. The mutual respect and trust they feel, the way they enjoy spending time together, and their collective pride in what they do and doing it well. People truly enjoy being together. This can’t be manufactured, but the leaders of an organization can work hard to create an environment that encourages this attitude.
The leaders of the companies profiled in Small Giants spent an extraordinary amount of time and energy working at creating this culture of intimacy, even more than they spent on growing their company. To them, it was the most important thing. They spent time personally with employees, and continually thought about ways they could show they cared. But they also spent lots of time developing systems and processes that helped to shape this culture. Only through marrying up systems and processes with individual efforts and gestures did a culture of intimacy become a consistent reality for these companies. I’m not saying I’m going to stop driving for revenue growth in our business, but reading Small Giants made me realize growth isn’t the only thing that’s important.