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Finding the Best Fit Between Your Company and Your Employees

📄 Contents

  1. Different Kinds of Organizations
  2. Different Kinds of People
  3. After April 2000
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How do organizations successfully attract, motivate, involve, and retain people? They select people who have the personal characteristics that are likely to result in their being successful within the organization. In other words, they achieve a best fit.
This chapter is from the book


  • Success requires a "best fit" between an individual and an organization

  • Individuals must be truthful about whether they're a Ferrari or a Ford

  • Organizations need to place great weight on a person's personality, am-bitions, and character

The door is opened by the CEO, 34 years old, and wearing blue jeans, a T-shirt, and boots. A basketball hoop hangs on the back of the door, right next to huge plastic blow-up Crayola® crayons. People are jammed into crowded office space, most of it messy with stuff sprawled all over desks, chairs, and the floor. The hum never quits; intense conversations are going on everywhere. Suddenly there's a big bang! The CFO just knocked a hole in the wall. Welcome to the borderless start-up, where success is a work in progress and the margin between excitement and exhaustion is a thin red line.

Another door is opened by another CEO, 54 years old, and wearing a dark suit, white shirt, and Ferragamo tassel loafers. His office occupies a corner of the 34th floor where all the executive offices are clustered. As you walk the corridor to his office all you hear is silence, even though office doors are open. The CEO's office, like all those on this floor, is hung with Remingtons and other masters of the American Western art tradition. The art and the wood and the maroon leather furniture convey stability and prosperity. Tradition is clearly revered in this organization.

The CEO of the dot-com start-up would be as out of place in the 34th floor corner office as the CEO in that office would be in a start-up. To achieve success, organizations have to achieve a "best fit" between the characteristics and requirements of the organization and those of its employees.

There are major differences in the values and styles of stable organizations and borderless companies. People who prefer stable organizations value security highly, but those who prefer borderless start-ups view traditional security as limiting. Employees in stable organizations are comfortable being treated as members of a group, but borderless employees insist they be treated as individuals.

The person who is successful in a stable organization likes being a member of a large and preeminent organization and gains pride and an identity from that commitment. Although that person may poke fun at the organization's rules and procedures, that individual likes knowing where the lines are drawn. That person understands the value of precedent and tradition. That same individual would be very uncomfortable and would most likely fail in a situation that called for entrepreneurial qualities.

The key to success is achieving a best fit between the employee's values, styles, and priorities and the conditions, requirements, and payoffs that an organization offers. Where there's a best fit, employees have the personal qualities that are likely to result in their being successful within that organization.

I worked for IBM as an outsider, a lecturer and consultant, for about 25 years. When Tom Bouchard, then IBM's executive vice president for Human Resources asked me to come and work for the company and redesign their executive and management development program, I refused. "It wouldn't work, Tom," I said, "I'm okay as an outsider. But I'd be ineffective as an insider. I'm much too forthright to be accepted as an IBMer."

The wider range of organizational conditions that were created by the advent of borderless organizations means there are no "best companies" or "best practices." There's no one size that fits all. Instead, there's a best fit—a match between an individual's values, priorities, and behaviors and those of an organization.

How do organizations successfully attract, motivate, involve, and retain people? They achieve a best fit. They select people who have the personal characteristics that are likely to result in their being successful within the organization as it is or will be, and whose most important needs and desires can be met. Ideal outcomes are achieved when there is a best fit between the requirements and opportunities of the organization and the capacities and priorities of the employee.

Best fit, compatibility between what the organization requires and the employee desires, leads to high motivation, comfort, and success. Bad fit leads to discomfort, high stress, and failure. Without best fit, the chances for success and retention plummet; with best fit, the chances for success soar.

Different Kinds of Organizations

At the dawn of the 21st century, there is a much broader range of organizational characteristics, a far wider range of people's attributes, and a greater insistence on individuality than we have seen before. As a result, the tasks of management in the 21st century are much more complicated and customized than they were in the 20th century.

In the second half of the 20th century, virtually every person and every organization was fundamentally alike. Organizations were stable and employees generally satisfied their needs for a safe, predictable, and secure life. In the 21st century, management needs to pay serious attention to individuals. The core differences between individuals require that organizations customize many practices to engage people, especially Ferraris, and keep them satisfied and motivated.

Organizations now need to select people for management who have excellent people skills. Management must now relate to and lead many people whose views and priorities are very different from their own. Making that task more difficult is the fact that customizing responsibilities, working conditions, and rewards is a major change from organizations' historic concept of fairness. In the 20th century, fairness was defined as everyone being treated identically. When people are responded to as individuals, fairness involves different outcomes for different people, all played out on a level playing field. Avoiding jealousy and resentment, the hue and cry of "Why did she get that?!," requires managers with a deft touch who generate a lot of respect for their fairness.

Not so very long ago, there weren't major differences in the core motives of most people in the different generations and there weren't huge differences in the cultures, values, and practices of most organizations. But, today we have far greater differences in priorities between people than we ever had before.

Some people love the meteoric growth and absence of precedent and bureaucracy in a start-up, while others need the clarity that's provided by formal structure and detailed processes. The perks of bigness and deep pockets—secretaries, well-furnished large offices, imposing buildings, company planes, and cars—appeal to many people who would be very unhappy with the garage-sale furniture and cramped cubicles of a start-up.

Although some people are drawn to the pressure-cooker heroics of a borderless start-up, others find working in an organization that sees an eight-hour day as a day's work as really important. There's an enormous difference between being responsible for a whole project, which often happens in a start-up, and being one of many who contribute, which is normal in a Fortune 500 company. Many people prefer job security, dependable compensation and benefits, a slower pace, and few surprises. Lots of people still prefer tenure, implicit or contractual, to the potential of options.

Security and no nasty surprises are still enormously important to a huge number of people. Researchers at the John J. Heldrich Center for Workforce Development at Rutgers University and the Center for Research Analysis at the University of Connecticut interviewed almost 6,000 American workers between 1998 and 2000.1 Despite the previous seven to nine years of economic good times and the extraordinarily low unemployment rate, nearly 90 percent said they were worried about job security and whether they would be able to keep their job until they retired.

Stable goals are still widely shared. It's important to remember that many stable organizations have historically been among America's most admired places to work.

If you think of a best company as a best fit, a best company is necessarily in the eyes of the beholder. A best company does a superb job of being honest about its values and priorities and it selects people who will resonate with what it offers and succeed within its culture. Every organization has to become very insightful about its own "soft" characteristics as well as those of the people it wants to attract and keep.

Fortune magazine named The Container Store chain as the best company to work for in America in 1999 and 2000. The Container Store sells boxes, shelves, and jars...mostly it sells storage. This is not glamourous. There are no stock options. There are no sales commissions. The Web is nowhere in sight.

The Container Store people believe that succeeding is simple: Just treat people like you want to be treated. The company believes in family values and employees say they're all members of the company family. There are no secrets because management opens the books. Employees report that the company has made them better people and the stores make the world a better, more organized place. People expect to work at The Container Store for a long time. They're happy there.

The Container Store has done an unusually good job of developing and articulating the company's values and selecting people who are a great fit. A sense of family, trust and pride, long-term employment, and a slow pace of change appeal to Container Store people. And the company does a great job of selecting people who share its values and the experience it offers.

A second group of organizations, which includes the majority of large and mature businesses, has found it necessary to transform themselves over roughly the past 15 years. They are transitional companies—previously successful and now forced to change because they're unsuccessful in borderless conditions. This group includes the majority of our most famous and revered corporations: General Electric, IBM, Hewlett-Packard, and the like. Because true transformation is exceedingly rare, organizations that set out on a path of transformation generally continue on that path permanently.

The third and smallest group of organizations was founded in the past 20 years and blossomed in the 1990s. Borderless organizations range from large and successful older companies like Microsoft, Sun Microsystems, QUALCOMM, and eBay to successful Web start-ups like CBSMarketwatch.com. Borderless organizations' core business is technology itself or they could not exist without computers or the Net. A critical element they have in common is that they were created within the last 15 to 20 years when turbulent conditions already existed. Since these companies were established in borderless conditions, they take for granted ever-rising requirements for major innovation, continuous adaptability, and accelerating speed.

The differences in needs and characteristics among stable, transitional, and borderless organizations means different kinds of people will be selected to lead these different kinds of organizations (see Table 11-1). In stable organizations, for example, in which basic change isn't necessary, leaders tend to be selected on the basis of what they already know—their knowledge, skills, and experiences. In The Container Store chain, for instance, it's appropriate that leaders are required to truly believe in family values and have in-depth relevant retail experience. The Container Store's next CEO is very likely to be an insider.

Transitional organizations—ones that are in the process of trying to change in major ways and become nimble, fast, and innovative—are more likely to select an outsider or an internal maverick, like Jack Welch was in his earlier years at General Electric. New CEOs are often chosen because their personal characteristics are very different from those of the previous CEOs. Transitional organizations are well advised not to select leaders with the values and characteristics of the previous leadership because the conditions the new leaders have to create need to be markedly different from those that previously existed.

Organizations, especially start-ups, that are created when borderless conditions already exist, most need an entrepreneur who has either the necessary financial or technical skills that are needed and the intuition that's necessary to successfully grow a very new business. Borderless organizations have little or no past to guide or impede them as they move into an uncertain future. That's a powerful asset because they don't have a culture based on conditions that no longer exist. It's also a liability in that the organization has no history or only a short track record of success. That's why the leader of a borderless organization has to be a realist who is simultaneously an optimist because that person needs to generate a convincing sense of a hopeful future for employees.

Table 11-1 Different Kinds of Organizations and the Selection of Leaders

  Stable Large and Mature Organization Transitional Organization Borderless Start-Up Organization
Objective Run it! Change it! Grow it!
Leaders Need Operational skills Leadership skills and confidence building characteristics Entrepeneurial and technical skills. As the orginization grows, they need personal maturity
Environment Political, because it's very hierarchical Somewhat political Apolotocal
Leaders most need Experience and deep knowledge of the business Integrety, believability, and trustworthiness Dedication, adaptability, commitment, focus, and passion
Major error Select for status quo Select a cheerleader with no follow-through Select for technical ability and ignore interpersonal immaturity
People style Group processes: Everyone handled the same way Moving from group to customized approach Individualized anad customized
Insider or outsider An insider with immense experience An out sider or an internal maverick An insider at start-up, then either is possible

Stable and borderless organizations are very different in terms of the kinds of experiences they offer, their priorities and values, the amount of compensation people might earn, levels of risk or job security, and the opportunities they offer for creativity and leadership. While some people love unpredictability, risk, and autonomy, other people like to know their place and get their orders.

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