From Haj Carr, President and CEO of Trueline, a full-service marketing firm based in Portland, Maine.
In 2018, I made one of the toughest hiring decisions I’ve ever had to make. From a corporate culture perspective, it turned out to be critical – although I hadn’t realized it at the time.
We had just hired a new team of salespeople, one of whom seemed particularly promising. She nailed her interview. She brought the kind of dynamic experience we expect from potential employees. She was friendly, outgoing, and quickly made friends in the office.
There was only one problem: it didn’t hit its benchmarks. After six months, and despite our best efforts to help her identify areas for improvement and encourage her when she does well, her performance continued to lag. So we had to let her go.
She called me a few days later. During our conversation (which was quite intense) she said something I will never forget. “Anything that says Trueline is a family is a lie,” she said. “This isn’t a family. It’s just a different business.”
And you know what? She was right.
Since then we have tried to redefine our self-image – to rewrite our own narrative. For years we were way too literal in our approach to the family idea. In a family, you forgive people for their shortcomings and look beyond their mistakes. You love her unconditionally.
These are of course important values for an organization. This is how you build trust. This is how you create a culture that can withstand big changes – both good and bad.
But do you know what else is important to run a business (and be part of a healthy family)? Set clear expectations. To be honest. Hold people accountable. Without these values, you risk creating an environment that is too accommodating and too unconditional. It’s a dynamic where people are tied to different standards for things that have nothing to do with actual work: their promises, their personality, or whatever led you to hire them in the first place.
I understand why companies like to see themselves as families. It feels good. But when you have to let someone go because their expectations and yours did not match, it feels awful.
After a little internal soul searching, we realized that in order to reach our full potential, we had to get away from the old story and adopt a different one.
So long, family. Now it’s all about the team.
Unlike a family, nobody’s position is guaranteed in a for-profit company. It has to be earned. This is why so many companies (including ours) treat a person’s first few months of tenure like a trial. You either find out or you don’t.
In a way, the chaos of 2020 made it easier for companies to hold people accountable. If your boat tips over, you can quickly find out who can keep their heads above water and who needs a life jacket. Everyone suddenly fell into the same dire situation. There’s a strange kind of freedom in that – willingness to try anything to survive. Different benchmarks? Absolutely. Growth strategies that you wouldn’t even have thought of a year ago? Listen to them. Let people work from 12 p.m. until 5 p.m. in pajamas? Who cares while they’re doing their job?
At the same time, remote operation is not without its dangers. With greater freedom comes greater responsibility for team members and management. If you don’t have that camaraderie (and accountability) in the office, it’s easy to take your foot off the gas. Because of this, it’s especially important that you set clear expectations and cheer people on when those expectations are met – just as a close-knit team should.
In previous articles I have outlined the challenges of maintaining corporate culture in a time of historic change and upheaval. Some things you will be good at; other things, not so much. The most important thing is to learn. Develop. Part of that evolution is realizing when your narrative – the story that captures who you are as an organization – needs to be rewritten.
Moving from family to team has changed the way we hire, work and communicate. I wish we had learned this lesson sooner, but now that we have learned it, it is important that we work through it. While we realize that given the changing circumstances, we cannot be afraid to rewrite the narrative.
If there’s one thing we’ve learned in more than 10 years creating great content, the best stories are the ones where every word matters.