Hero culture is bad

Some years ago, back in the country I grew up in, back to an age when I still watched TV, there was a certain trend: TV stars would move with their shows to different stations and find themselves, months later, in a much worse position. Even if they were initially offered better packages and – maybe – were able to take some of their initial staff with them on the new venture, they ultimately failed to actually move audiences for more than a limited period of time. Some of them ended being thrown out of TV business for good; tabloids would sometime chime in and ask questions in the line of “how was that even possible?”, but would not post answers (not that they had anything meaningful to put forward). I’m not sure their readers would have had any chance of understanding what was really going on, though.

I wasn’t at that time in any better position of understanding what was going on – even if I did have access to smarter opinions in the line of “the shows were actually better before the move” or “some stations have more money to spend on everything and can afford not to cut corners”. That’s actually the visible layer; I had to move jobs myself a couple of times to realize that success is:

  • not about you having some special talent;

  • not about you pulling the company uphill by yourself;

  • about the whole environment that makes you succeed or fail, starting from how clean the toilet is at your work place.

How can the environment make one succeed or fail?

The most basic example comes from the school education one may or may not have access to – this is dependent on the immediate or extended family, the neighborhood, the city and the society as a whole. A business, one may point out, may not fall in a similar bucket due to people being selected through interviewing rather than being born into it – but I say the same constraints seem to be in place everywhere: location, money and the human factor.

Let me give you an example from one of my previous positions: the only way to put up some slides during meetings was to first get a projector from the IT storage, fiddle with the setup and, minutes later, do your job. Once you were done, you had to give back the projector to IT so that somebody else could make use of it in a different room. For some budgeting person this sounded like the optimal approach for these types of things. Obviously, fitting all meeting rooms with TVs or fixed projectors was much more expensive. There were 2 issues with their strategy of saving money, though:

  • The whole process of setting the equipment up was cumbersome: time was lost with booking the equipment, getting it from IT, configuring it and then repeat the steps the other way around; like 20 minutes or more were wasted in order to conduct a meeting no longer than 1 hour. A bottom line win, I say.

  • Projectors had a heating/cooling timing cycle that could not be satisfied with the process above. After a few months, all of them had issues with the lens (the image was no longer sharp enough), so basically they were no longer fit for the purpose. Another bottom line win.

These types of challenges create workplace heroes, people that seem to succeed against what it is being thrown at them, only that they don’t – they are actually just the survivors, the ones that seem to be floating above the water. You just cannot transplant successful people from other places into such environments and expect they will continue to be successful: even if they become local heroes by themselves, their actual success will be severely limited.

Heroes always succeed – do they?

Back at the workplace I mentioned about, we had a hero culture by any definition. There were a couple of engineers that worked their a** off, fighting company procedures, incompetence and, ultimately, craziness. But good code is not a good way forward, as these people found out the hard way at some point – because, at the end of the day, such environment is not conducive for good performance.

The heroes in the story above ultimately succeeded in their own professional lives once they came in contact with really good environments, in line with the TV stations I mentioned in the beginning – the ones that kept on making huge audiences even after some anchors moved on. Their ultimate secret is that they have hero-proofed their work environments.

Hero-proof work environment

How can a company be hero-proof? Culture helps to some extent: successful companies these days employ a flat structure and have an open door policy. This is the visible part; the less visible one is that, in such companies, nobody can succeed by themselves alone and everybody is well aware of this reality.

But yes, it actually starts with clean toilets: this is the most efficient mood destroyer inside any organization, too few bathrooms or the predominance of soiled toilets. It’s like Maslow’s hierarchy of needs: the basic things must be in place before everything else, e.g. the quality of the training programs starts to matter quite late in the game. The TV stations that kept on doing audiences even after they “lost” certain people were simply better than the others at addressing such basic things. At the end of the day, they:

  • had a better hiring process for the “basic” positions;

  • put the right tools in the hands of the right people;

  • held everybody to a high standard, no exceptions.

By offering better products to their audiences, they could in turn demand more money from advertisers, spend more on details and be able to cut fewer corners than others. They were successful in maintaining a virtuous cycle in place; yes, it is that simple.

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