When I began working at my current company in 2005, I was completely unprepared for the cultural shift I was about to experience. My ideals and pursuit for professional results were an apparent match for those of the company, but my preferred behaviors and approach to work were very out of sync with “the company”. The resulting tension that was created was palpable. I listened with great interest to the stories about the founding fathers of the company. I learned about the days when, if you needed a refill on a lead holding pencil for drafting, you had to go in front of the owner, Cyrus Baxter, and ask for the new stick of lead. I found great insight in the story our current CEO told about when he was 14 years old cutting the grass at the office, and Cy came down from his second story office and chewed him out for not keeping the wheel lines of the mower straight enough.
There were times when I could “feel” the mystery of Cy whispering in the office. I never met the man, but in a way felt I knew him in the voices of those who have spent their careers working at the company. The whispers suggested acceptable work behaviors, definitions of quality process, and judgments of personal success criteria at my job. The unwritten rules combined to tell me that I was an outsider for certain. At the start of the economic downturn, I bet a friend that, even though I was making business results culturally, “the company” would not keep me no matter what I brought to the party every day.
At the moment of this bet, I began to understand the meaning of a “company”. Up until that point I believed a company was an entity that had power and control over me as an individual. A company could hire me, direct me, judge me and fire me. But Cy was gone. The first letter of his last name begins our company sign. And that is the sum of it. Cy could not command who I am. But what of the other bosses of this era of the company? Surely the company that they are running dictates my place in the functioning of creating business results. I needed a few months of thought on this as we moved into the pressures of the downturn, and I came to this conclusion:
A COMPANY does not exist. There is no such thing as a company as a living entity. A company does not breathe, eat, sleep, sense or think on its own. When the group of people who combine and collide together throughout a work day go home, and the lights go off, there is nothing there of interest.
A company is a collection of people with unique and individual skills, talents and passions, who choose to come together to create work and a work experience. If you consider that you are not coming to a place to serve a company, and that you are serving the people you work with and for, a paradigm shift in your place within the company will occur.
Imagine working in a place where you become engaged and challenged in such a way that you forget about time passing, the burdens of technology, and the weight of accountability. Imagine you are autonomous, self-determined and are continually building professional relationships that engage you and excite you to perform. A company cannot do any of these, as a company does not exist.
My company does not exist. My company’s brand is the stories of the past, the actions of the present and the hopes and dreams of our shared futures. My company is the people that I combine my work with and who seek to combine their work with me. Wanting to relate with others is what kept getting me up in the mornings of the first few difficult years at my current company. And it worked. Why? I no longer compete or complain about the company. “It does not exist” in my mind. I work to care for the people who also choose to be working here. And I care very much about those who are also seeking clarity of their purpose and the results of their actions.
It is damned interesting to show up for work now, since I no longer expend energy lamenting on the burdens laid down by “the company”. I choose to fill as much of my day with a meaning and purpose toward others as possible. I choose to not jump through every flaming hoop set up by the company to record time, and suffice technology, and account for people-less results. I choose to be with people, and to appreciate and care about them. I am fulfilled when I find others also care about me. When I find such a connection I acknowledge it fully and I appreciate the opportunity to work with another to do some good work for other people. I find this process to be sustaining.
6 points of reference for how to break through the burdens of “a company”
- Companies do not exist. Only people exist.
- Pay attention to the meaning of what you do. Meaning will light your way to results.
- Choose to take actions that align with the needs of people first. Be wary of burdens that come from the company, and give them your simplest energies.
- Give the fullness of your skills, strength and passions to others. The more you bring of your true self to others, the more you build yourself toward what you are supposed to do.
- Respect the history of the company. Every story is a memory of a person who has left a mark on others. You will be that story for future bearers of the work.
- Show up. The company expects it. But “be there” when you can. Those around you need you.