Generous Enterprises: The 21st Century's Greatest Companies

More and more, I’m absolutely convinced that the future belongs to generous enterprises. Generous enterprises are more concerned about what they give. Generous enterprises understand that if they’re motivated by a genuine commitment to serve, and execute in alignment with that intention, the “getting” will take care of itself.

Let’s take a look at two companies that recently either embraced or rejected the generous enterprise concept. I’ll start with the rejection…

I’m sure you remember the massive car recalls due to faulty ignition switches affecting millions of GM cars worldwide. These faulty switches were installed over the period of many years. So far, the number of people killed as a direct result of an ignition failure is somewhere between GM’s official total of 57 and the several hundred more claims for death that are under review.

During investigations and hearings following the recalls, it was learned that GM knew the parts weren’t up to safety standards for as many as ten years up to 2014 when the recalls began to be announced.

Now this is still playing out and I don’t want to get hung up on the particulars of the situation, except to point out that GM has since reorganized and is now under different leadership. But I do want to take a closer look at how a company like GM could behave so selfishly when it appears that people there were aware of a defect with deadly implications for the people who drove their cars.

For most of us, thank heavens, the outcomes of organizational selfishness are much more benign. If we hold on to information or fail to consider our customers’ experiences, no one’s going to get hurt. At the same time, however, GM’s experience has something to teach us all about the dangers of running an organization where people can’t or don’t call attention to problems affecting the customer.

I don’t believe that anyone at GM was indifferent to the people who might be harmed if their ignition failed. The problem was with the system and leadership: GM was a bloated bureaucracy with a blind obsession with “hitting the numbers”. At a company like this, the safer thing for an employee of GM to do was to ignore or deny the problem. The results as we now know, have been tragic.

GM had gotten too far away from its customers. This is a phenomenon that can affect businesses of every size. How many of you have ever been at a store where the sales staff was so busy talking to one another that they didn’t have time for you? Have you ever walked into a quick serve restaurant where the person taking your order doesn’t even make eye contact, let alone welcome you or thank you for your business?

What about professional services companies that send you, their “valued client” generic form letters, an egregious shortcoming in a world where Amazon knows me well enough to greet me by name and make suggestions that are actually relevant to me.

That leads me to the next scenario, what I call Generous Enterprises. You may have heard of a company called DPR Construction. They are a Silicon Valley based construction firm specializing in high tech projects. DPR is number 10 on Fortune Magazine’s Best Places to Work list, and their business is thriving!

When polled, 97-99% of DPR’s employees said that DPR offered great challenges, Great bosses, Great Communication, Great Pride and Great atmosphere.

Take another look at the second to the last item – Great Pride. That is a particularly telling quality at generous enterprises, and one that can be difficult to achieve in today’s highly fragmented and specialized workplaces. How many of us or our employees can say we are proud of our own work let alone the work our company does.

But here’s the thing…I think every business has the opportunity to take pride in its mission and its achievements. I also think everyone can and should share in that pride. And be motivated by that pride to create great experiences for customers.

DPR offers a great example: When a construction crew of more than 1,400 people put in more than 2.5 million hours on a 450,000-square-foot biotech manufacturing facility expansion project without a single, lost-time safety accident, DPR hosted a BBQ at the site, and invited a cancer patient who would benefit from the drugs to be manufactured at the plant to speak to them. See, it didn’t matter if you were pouring concrete or framing walls, you were a part of making life better for that cancer patient.

The same is true whether you and your employees are serving food, processing drivers’ licenses, preparing taxes, fabricating steel, or malting barley. Generous enterprises value their people above all, and they include them in the important business of making a difference for their customers, whether that difference is everyday or profound.

My goal here is to make a sound business case for the Generous Enterprise, and I hope I’ve done that. I want to conclude by offering some suggestions for how to make your company more generous.

Be transparent.

DPR employees reported that their company had great communications. In fact most of the country’s best places to work have high marks for communication. Communication is the secret ingredient that transforms employees into stakeholders, people who are invested in the company’s mission and success. Companies that are great at communications observe the following principles:

  • It’s never one-and-done. Often, management has talked about a policy change so thoroughly and for so long that by the time it starts affecting people, they’re tired of thinking about it. In these circumstances, it’s tempting to send out a quick email and call it good. Well, it’s not. Anytime these companies do something at all important, how they communicate it – through what channels and over what period of time is as important as the change itself.
  • It’s not one way. Generous enterprises know their employees have a lot to add. Whether it’s regular sessions between leadership and rank and file employees, open door policies (and I mean really open), suggestion boxes, you name it. Employee participation is valued and promoted.
  • It’s principles based – I’m a big believer in the power of stories. A company’s story: why it was created. Who it exists to serve, its values and aspirations. Knowing your story and making your people an important part of it is the best way to ensure that what you say aligns with what you do. You know, walking the talk.
  • Set high expectations.

    People by nature love a challenge. There are few things in life more gratifying than accomplishing something you – and others – didn’t think you could do. Generous enterprises challenge their employees while giving them the tools and support they need to succeed. Further, they work with employees to understand where their interests lie and lay out a career path.

    Don’t stop at a paycheck. A competitive wage is considered by some companies to be recognition enough. And that may have been true at a lot of places for the last 5 or 6 years, with a lot of good people looking for work. But now that the economy is back on its feet and the labor market is tightening up, it’s not.

    Generous companies always have always known that the health and happiness of their employees was about much more than just pay and benefits. And I don’t mean you have to go crazy, breaking the bank to offer the kinds of perks Google and other companies are famous for.

    You know your culture and your budget. Find ways to reward your people for great performance , whether it’s a Starbucks gift card or a weekend to Las Vegas, and then work like crazy to give out a lot of awards. This is not a zero sum proposition. The great work you’re promoting will more than pay for the rewards.

    Generous enterprises are perfectly positioned for the 21st century economy. An economy where the consumer is king, where social media can create superstars and wreak havoc on reputations in a few short hours.

    Generous enterprises get and keep the best people, take great care of their customers and stand out in an insanely competitive marketplace. If your company is generous, congratulations. You’re in the right place at the right time. If not, you can get there. Make the decision and get started. It will pay off in ways you can’t begin to imagine.