Some years ago, back in the country I grew up in, back to an age when I was still watching TV, there was a certain trend: TV stars would move their shows to different stations and find themselves, months later, in a bad 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 they would not post answers (not that they had anything meaningful to say). 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 position to understand what was going on either, 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 what the success is about. To summarize:
it’s not about you having some special talent;
it’s not about you pulling the company uphill by yourself;
it is about the whole environment that makes you succeed or fail, starting from how clean is the toilet 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, as this depends on 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: at the time, the only way to put up some slides during meetings was to use a projector. It wasn’t simple: you needed to first get it from IT, fiddle with the setup and, minutes later, do your job. Once you were done, you had to follow the steps the other way around so that somebody else could make use of it in a different room. This sounded like the optimal approach in some finance meeting, so that was the way this was done; it’s obvious that 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 up the equipment was cumbersome: time was lost with booking the projector, getting it from IT, configuring it and then bringing it back; 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 is being thrown at them, only that they don’t actually win. They are the survivors, the ones that seem to be floating above the water.
My conclusion, after all these years, is that you cannot just 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 in the workplace I have mentioned about, we used to have a hero culture by any definition. There were a couple of engineers that worked their a**es 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 somewhere down the line. This happens 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 got in contact with really good environments, in line with the TV stations I have mentioned in the beginning – the ones that went on making huge audiences regardless of certain anchors being there or not.
What was the ultimate secret of successful TV stations? 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.
Well, yes, it actually starts with clean toilets: too few bathrooms or the predominance of soiled toilets is the most efficient mood destroyer inside any organization. It’s like Maslow’s hierarchy of needs: the basic things must be in place before everything else comes along: you know, the quality of 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 others at addressing the basic things. At the end of the day, they simply:
had a better hiring process for support staff;
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 time on fixing 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.