Three things about the workplace:
One: not all workplaces are good.
Two: many workplaces that are good aren’t good all the time.
Three: any time a workplace is good, the experience of working there is truly great.
That reads like something Yogi Berra would say but please with me. There is something rare and incredible about a good workplace. I crave it far more than I realize. I think we all do.
Ever go to a party? I’ve been to a few. The best ones have a host who welcomes you at the door and offers genuine gratitude at your arrival. There is a hint of surprise that you actually showed up. Norm! So glad you came! Come on in.
A good workplace starts with that. Your very first day, you’re greeted with a smile and treated as if you really had a choice to show up or not. Chances are, you needed the job but a good workplace doesn’t treat you that way. They don’t see this as some tacit, unavoidable exchange of rote labor for rote pay under a minimal level of compliance. They actually value you.
Ever volunteered for something? My personal favorite is food pantries. We didn’t have these in the small town where I grew up but there was a grocery store we would go to. In the back, they would provide us the day-old bread and overstocked groceries. Us and a few elderly folks. I haven’t volunteered in as many of these as I should but it always feels meaningful when I do. When I’m helping distribute food, I’m delivering on one of life’s most basic needs. And when I see a kid there, it takes me back in time.
A good workplace gives you the same feeling. You don’t have to have a backstory around it. The work itself just makes you feel right. You’re doing something that helps people. It could be a technology, a service, a very profitable product. A good workplace provides you a sense of doing great by humanity without requiring you to join a monastery (nothing against monasteries; I’m just saying).
Finally, ever felt the momentum of building something with other people? It can be a codebase for new software, an art installation, a new set of restaurant hours, a legislative bill, a barn-raising. It’s so much fun when it’s with other people. Together, you can enter some strange collective flow state that makes you go for days without ever thinking of anything else. You can eat-sleep-breathe the work and see an amazing thing completed at the end.
A good workplace has a bit of that. Your energy is pooled together with others and every contribution matters. Brick by brick, line by line, table by table. You and your teammates. It’s like a dance. A toe gets stepped on occasionally; a sequence goes offbeat for a moment. But the music keeps playing and you keep going. Catching up, slowing down, catching up. You get in the groove and that flow state, coupled with the momentum of getting closer to some finish line, is profoundly intoxicating. It’s not every day but it happens by design in a good workplace. Everywhere else, it happens by accident.
Such is the joy of a good workplace. If such a place could exist with any sense of regularity, I’d probably work there for free. Just give me some day-old bread and overstocked groceries.
This week’s featured book, The Hard Thing About Hard Things, could have another title. Horowitz wrote the best title of all, I think, but he could have a new version titled What I Do To Make A Great Workplace. Because that’s what the bulk of this book is really about. And yes, it’s hard and yes this is also a book about scaling a startup to a billion-dollar acquisition but, in the end, I think he especially sought to find the joy of a good workplace.
He succeeded. In more ways than he realizes. One example comes from an employee who tells Horowitz about how great it was to work there during the really tense moments when they knew the company’s fate was on the line. In those instances of a do-or-die mission, this employee and his colleagues loved being at work, they loved helping each other and the enterprise. They’d come in every day—no days off—because they were going to make this thing a success. Those moments, the employee said, were so great because Horowitz gave them the joy of a good workplace and such a workplace only gets better when things get hard.
After hearing this from his employee, Horowitz reacted as follows:
I cried. I cried because I didn’t know. I thought I did, but I really didn’t. I thought that I was asking too much of everybody. I thought that after barely surviving Loudcloud, nobody was ready for another do-or-die mission. I wish I knew then what I know now.
This is beautiful. And from this experience, Horowitz gleaned some very important truths about a good workplace and a bad workplace. My experience of both convinces me he’s right. It makes me realize, too, that the greatest level of success that you can have in a workplace will not stem from the perfect plan, strategy, process, or even the best execution. The greatest level of success comes from having a workplace of the sort described below.
Not because it will make the most money—it probably won’t! The ideal described below may not even be the most efficient. All the same, the ideal below achieves the greatest level of success because it gives us, as human beings, the things we want even more than sheckles, the thing that is even harder to find. As Horowitz writes:
In good organizations, people can focus on their work and have confidence that if they get their work done, good things will happen for both the company and them personally. It is a true pleasure to work in an organization such as this. Every person can wake up knowing that the work they do will be efficient, effective, and make a difference for the organization and themselves. These things make their jobs both motivating and fulfilling.
Again, I’d probably work at such a place for day-old bread and overstock groceries. I’m only slightly joking.
This book is rightfully seen as a great text for how to do “business stuff”. But the greater value is that Horowitz shows how such practice can also benefit “the human stuff”. That’s what makes a good workplace. That’s what inspires the joy we’re all looking for.
It’s hard for any of us to focus on this kind of thing for long. All the same, I think our author would tell us to that the hard thing about such a hard thing is what also makes it worthwhile.