I recently heard someone utter the phrase “It’s just business.” It was mentioned in a conversation with a growing company that was trying to explain a decision that was made about an employee. As the person continued to talk, I kept listening for clues as to why they would think any decision is ever really “just business”. I wondered, “Is your company made up of robots? Computers? Umpa Lumpas?” To me, this is the cop-out used when leaders don’t want to consider the people that make up their business and the fact that, like it or not, there’s no simple solution. I agree it can be mind boggling, take more time, compassion and thought to consider the whole situation, system and person in the speed-of-light business world we live in. But if a leader doesn’t consider the culture being created and the people who make up the company as factors in the equation, then it’s not just business. It’s just bad math.
I was sure that someone had thought of this before me and there are probably entire books written on the subject to support my theory. Since I was only slightly curious, I went to look for quick news articles. Interestingly, when I Googled “it’s just business”, I got a slew of sports articles. My first thought was, “Wow. What a perfect example of an industry that treats its people like chattel.” Money, fear mongering and low moral standards are often the name of the game. Many of the articles were about letting go of a player for steroid use, injury or low performance. I found it ironic that, in none of the articles (baseball, football, basketball), did anyone ever look at how those young men and women got there. Few coaches or owners took responsibility for the high pressure, immature, cattle driving culture that many of these people, literally, grew up in. Equally, many companies don’t take responsibility for their business or employee problems being a symptom of a flimsy or ill established culture. And that’s where those who use the “it’s just business” excuse need to put on their big girl panties and step up to the plate.
Start-up companies are particularly susceptible to the bottom line and, as they grow, quick decision making in dire financial situations is often necessary. They are also typically like a small family and made up of people with a passion for the beginning concepts and core philosophies. So, how do small companies grow, change and adapt and still keep their values, culture and family-like ties? Ask Google. What has gotten them through the scrappy start-up phase and into record breaking public offering, exponential growth and world-effecting decisions while maintaining “…the open culture often associated with startups, in which everyone is a hands-on contributor and feels comfortable sharing ideas and opinions”? Don’t. Be. Evil. This was their truth at the beginning of the company and, although not the official corporate philosophy, it was included in their 2004 IPO prospectus and continues to be central to the company’s daily business. This value has been a beacon during what could otherwise, on any given day, be a rapid and thoughtless decision making process. Yes, sometimes quick decisions have to come from instinct. But even instinct-based decisions need an additional gut check, and there is always time to stop and say, “Is this evil?”
This is where growing start-up companies have their culture mishaps. It’s easy for leaders to cave under pressure and the need for cash flow, follow the shiny objects (the money, what a client thinks they want, what the other guy is doing) and take their eye off what and who got them there in the first place – a good idea, a dedicated group of people and a value system they refuse to comprise.
In essence, start-up companies are the children of business and the leaders of these companies have the same responsibilities of any parent. They can take time and thought to give proper guidance and support and create a strong and productive company. Or, they can be impatient and too busy to foster the “whole person” and let their grown company go out into the world to continue the vicious cycle of undervaluing people. They may get the initial dollar and get over the hump, but they won’t have the respect or established culture needed to be sustainable. By staying true to the original core values and concepts, appreciating the team that brought the company through the good times and bad, and fostering a culture where people are valued, company leaders will create a healthy business. And the money will follow.
There is a saying that “when you see crazy coming, run the other way.” That about sums up my advice to anyone who encounters any company leader who ventures to say, “It’s just business.”
**Other good culture articles: How Start-Ups Can Maintain Company Culture While Growing