Contributed by Aaron Fairchild, CEO of Green Canopy, Inc.
I recently read the PSBJ article by Rachel Lerman on elephants under the corporate table. In the article she recapped an interview between Joe Wallin of Davis Wright Tremaine and Dan Levitan, the founder of Maveron. It was striking to hear Levitan, a venture capitalist, talk about not underestimating the importance of a “holistic team where there are no elephants under the table.” He noted that the most agile and high-functioning teams have love, respect, and appreciation for each other.
It sounds like Levitan is a millennial at heart. Corporate America is changing rapidly. The 50’s, 60’s, and 70’s Mad Men era of, “do as you are told” and heavy, top down management is a thing of the past. And as this interview illustrates, the importance of healthy corporate cultural development can no longer be denied. The millennial generation has been given a bad rap and pointed to as entitled and fickle job-hoppers, however my experience is that inside every top caliber talent, whether they were born before or after 1981, exists a millennial mind and heart.
"When the right cause is coupled with a great cultural framework, magic happens."
High functioning people need to be inspired to work hard. As Elon Musk recently said, “Putting in long hours for a corporation is hard, putting in long hours for a cause is easy.” In addition to having a cause that inspires, high functioning people need to feel respected in order to contribute their all. Furthermore, they will not work for a team that they themselves cannot respect. Just look at the non-profit world. Nonprofits are all about great causes yet, we all probably know at least one or two that can never seem to live up to their potential. Having a great cause or purpose in today’s corporate America isn’t enough… creating inspiration at intersection of people and the cause results from a deliberate focus on corporate culture.
When the right cause is coupled with a great cultural framework, magic happens. Think of that framework as a tapestry of shared values. Everything from who washes dishes in the corporate kitchen to how board meetings are run… those values present themselves to the rest of the team. If there is misalignment or inconsistency, no matter how noble the cause, the ecosystem of the organization will begin to break down. Respect and love for each other is so important.
Equally important is trust, where confident leaders motivate not through the force of their egos, but by letting go of control and empowering their team to take responsibility for their own decisions. Having autonomy is a must for top tier talent (micro-managers suck) and talented people are the very people that we all want to work with. Good managers will let go of control beyond what feels comfortable and play to the strengths of the team. Playing to someone’s strengths is simply another way of saying, don’t ask people to do what they are not good at. If a team member was hired for a job that they are not good at or interested in, then management should recognize their complicity and move the individual into a role that they are good at and interested in mastering.
Lastly, when thinking about the insights of people like Levitan, consider how far we have come in managing top talent in America, and then consider just how far we still have yet to go. Thankfully, the millennial mind has been born and is demanding more from corporate America. It demands that managers earn the right to retain top talent… top talent isn’t only interested in money.
The problems we face as a nation and as a species balancing on stressed and changing ecosystems are pressing to say the least. Establishing corporate cultures that are designed ultimately to respect people and play to their strengths is a must for the successful businesses of the future, and a must for a fragile species in need of corporate solutions that address resource scarcity on a planet in transition.
I met my wife, Susan, 14 years ago at a Chamber of Commerce meeting. I was a banker and Susan was forming a non-profit mentorship program for at-risk youth in south Seattle. She was attending the meeting to recruit mentors and came away with a lot more than she anticipated. We lived very different lives at the time however we shared similar values of social and environmental justice.
Over the course of the next several years I continued to feel juxtaposed in life. I was working to make money, and really wanted to be making a difference. The juxtaposed feeling culminated in meeting another couple on a hiking outing in 2003, when I was asked what I did for a living. When I responded that I worked in banking, the couple immediately looked at Susan and asked what she did for a living. When she said that she worked in the non-profit sector, they quickly struck up a conversation leaving me feeling like a third wheel. Ugh… it was time for a change.
I guess I share many of the attitudes of the millennial generation, meaning I am far from alone. I am ambitious and demand a lot from an employer in order to earn my respect and retention. I am fine working long hours from the office and from home if I am inspired, and I believe in perhaps a naïve notion that I can live an aligned life.
When I reflect on my own experience and look out at the world around me I see the intersection of two major factors that are driving our company, Green Canopy, and the future of business:
1) The prevailing cultural attitude of the “millennial” shared by so many born before and after 1981, and;
2) Society’s hard charging transition into a new world paradigm of severe resource constraints and climate upheaval.
The success of Green Canopy and other companies is limited only in our ability to positively respond to these two things.
The first of these requires that we inspire our employees and earn the right of their respect and continued employment. And whether the business of an organization is about addressing environmental challenges head on like Green Canopy or not, the most successful businesses of the future will intentionally conduct their operations in the most resource efficient manner possible. Simple, yet oh so difficult.
“At Green Canopy we recognize that we are firmly planted with everyone else somewhere along the spectrum of hypocrisy.”
After the culminating hike in 2003, I spent much of my time trying to create alignment in my life by finding ways to apply my skills and experiences toward environmental issues. That eventually led me to quit working at my father’s bank in order to start my own enterprise. And in 2008 I shared an idea I had recently been mulling on with a longtime friend. After a short period of time Sam and I began developing the plan and finding the right partners that would lead to starting Green Canopy over one year later.
At Green Canopy we recognize that we are firmly planted with everyone else somewhere along the spectrum of hypocrisy. Our mission is to inspire resource efficiency and – while we are extremely intentional and deliberately try to always make the most resource efficient and less environmentally harmful homebuilding decisions – we have yet to perfect our efforts in building the utmost in green and resource efficient homes. Sometimes we are faced with no other alternative than to make the less resource efficient or more wasteful decision. It sincerely frustrates the team when this happens. We certainly have green building design and development standards that we never sacrifice, but the cruel realities of market-based economics sometimes force our hand. And yet many times these very same constraints open up new possibilities. However, at the end of the day we are far from perfect. So when I talk about our company it comes from a position of deep humility and a desire to inspire others to take action.
Inspiring at the intersection of the prevailing cultural attitude and the new world paradigm of severe resource constraints is clearly tricky. How we go about it at Green Canopy is through delivering – for our employees – what Daniel Pink has written heavily about: autonomy, mastery, and purpose. Intentionally building a company designed to deliver these three essential things to its employees took a lot of thought and dedication to cultural development. As a result of our culture we cannot help but to give employees autonomy to make their own empowered decisions, the ability to master what they are already interested in, and a binding sense of purpose. Inspiring at the intersection happens right there, with the binding sense of purpose. Developing a cultural framework that allows every employee to meaningfully engage in addressing that purpose is part of the work.
When Susan and I reflect on the journey of the last decade and the sacrifices that we have made as a family to get here, we know that it was well worth the struggle. We are aligned through our work and in our day-to-day lives and we are proud that through this career we are making a meaningful and lasting difference. Also, despite the hike and my feelings of career shame, my banking skills definitely come in handy at Green Canopy. The future of business requires innovation on every front, including capital.
The Green Canopy blog is written by our CEO and Culture Curator, Aaron Fairchild, as well as our staff and a few very special guests.