Many years ago when I was CEO of the non-profit, LeaderShape, Inc., we were a very young entity going through a tremendous growth cycle. I remember telling my brother that I just wanted to make sure we didn’t end up as a Harvard case study on “The Nonprofit That Grew Too Fast.”
Fortunately, we were able to stay on a productive growth path without spinning out of control. But, I could have benefitted from insights in a new article from Harvard Business Review* that discusses how organizations can maintain the essentials that make a start-up so engaging as they grow.
The author suggests that there is an essence of a start-up that founders, early customers, and employees sense – it is a soul.
“It inspires people to contribute their talent, money, and enthusiasm and fosters a deep connection and mutual purpose. As long as this spirit persists, engagement is high and start-ups remain agile and innovative, spurring growth. But when it vanishes, ventures can falter, and everyone perceives the loss – something special is lost.” (p. 86)
Research for the article included interviewing a large number of people involved with start-ups to find out the essence of soul. Here are the three key elements. If an organization can keep these alive as it grows then it can retain its soul:
*Business Intent. Start-ups studied certainly wanted a financial windfall – but they wanted more. They wanted to “make history,” to be a part of something special by improving people’s lives with their products and services. This deeper purpose, or reason for being, is a key part of soul. Some would call this the “noble purpose” of an organization. Work to keep this alive in your organization.
*Customer Connection. Start-ups know their customers intimately – their survival depends on knowing what they love, what they like, and what they hate. This can be lost as an organization grows and customers can be taken for granted. In 1982, Peters & Waterman told us that “Close to the Customer” was an attribute of high performing firms in their book In Search of Excellence. Nothing much has changed in this regard.
*Employee Experience. The special aspect of the employee experience in start-ups is the amount of autonomy and creativity that is allowed. This fosters more engagement and better results. The article says leaders in the organizations studied provide “freedom within a framework” to allow employees “voice” and “choice” in their work.
Keeping the soul of an organization alive and vibrant is one of the most important roles of a leader. Use these ideas to keep that spark bright and meaningful for yours.
*Gulati, R. “The Soul of a Start-Up,” Harvard Business Review, July – August, 2019, pp. 84 – 91.