The counter-intuitive ideas that (probably) make FourthCanvas an exemplary workplace culture
As the conversation heats up today on Nigerian Twitter about startup leadership and whether or not companies should allow their employees work multiple jobs and side gigs, I thought I could share a few points on what I have learnt from my experience leading what currently appears to be a rare great company culture around. I say so because people who work at FourthCanvas have always found it hard to relate to conversations like this while it seems like a huge struggle everywhere else. We must be doing something right. Here are a few observations, and the things I think make it easier.
There is space for honesty
You know you can be honest at FourthCanvas because you see what happened the last time your colleague admitted to doing something wrong or that they weren't sure was right. You saw what the reaction was and how the focus was on how we could help and what to do differently, moving forward. No shaming, embarrassment and WTF reactions. If you had to take another job and you believe you could combine it successfully, you know you can have that conversation and the leaders would be willing to see how that pans out in the best interest of all parties, and if it doesn’t, you know they would call you for an honest conversation that will not be about judging you.
We are ruthlessly equal
I have seen leaders snub people sometimes and be so much fun with them at some other times as they act out what appears to be a manipulative approach to position themselves as being scarce and one whose attention you should be grateful to have when you have it. I have seen some others display an obvious kind of superiority demeanour when they enter the room, correct people in a demeaning way and demand to be regarded in some particular way that “respects” them. There is none of that at FourthCanvas. For example, everyone including me can be at the centre of a joke at any time and everyone knows that. You can’t enter any FourthCanvas gathering and be able to tell who the boss is. That makes it easier for people to be honest, and to have conversations on the things they aren’t sure of, or to request that an exception be made for them in certain situations.
We know we can’t fully ENSURE excellence
We learnt this one from The 8th Habit by Stephen Covey. We don’t try to fully ensure excellence. The truth is you can’t. Trying too hard makes it worse. When you insist on weekly reports of hour-to-hour, daily this, bi-monthly that, you create a system where people spend more time gaming that system and creating the appearance of excellence than actually being excellent. A better route is to continuously show and help people see why they should put their hearts to work. Some system of checks here and there that doesn't become full work on its own can then join that desire to arrive at better results. How do you know if your systems and processes are stressing people and they are doing it “for doing sake”? Ask them.
We advise more than instruct
Because we treat people as people, and we know that people have sense, especially if you recognize that they do, we don't instruct them like machines. Do we want to see things done in a particular way? We have a conversation about it. We explain why and we seek agreement while being open to objection. And that makes it easier for people to execute on them because it’s now beyond an instruction to fulfil and more of something that they agree makes sense.
We embrace unprecedented perspectives
We don’t need to have read about an approach in a business book or heard it done in other companies before we do it over here. We are always willing to look further and challenge the popular ideas of why it doesn't make sense. The exact format of our current Partnership model, for example, as well as every redesign we have done to it, is not something we saw anywhere else. Some other leaders surely even deem such to not make sense. But we don’t see it, and we don’t need any proof to try it out the way that makes sense to us and to everyone involved. If it doesn’t work out, we will try another tweak.
We genuinely want our people to be happy
Bolaji and I want to be successful, happy and wealthy. And we want the same for all our people. Simple. It doesn't have to be so hard.
We don’t buy people with the salary
Whatever you pay your employees, it’s not enough to buy a human being. I know someone who told her boss she can’t be available for an emergency weekend meeting because she scheduled to visit family and the boss was infuriated, talking about his own sacrifices and that of every other person on the team. It doesn’t make sense. Work should only be a percentage of the full lives of your employees. In that example, surely that human being should be left to another key part of their life that has called at that moment. It’s worse when you imagine it was a weekend and they weren't even obligated to be available. I am convinced that some employers believe that the salary is a life commitment payment. It is not. I wonder if it is the same employers (the ones who are men) who “Lord” over their wives because they paid a bride price ( as applicable to some cultures here in Africa). It would be hard to redeem such people. Don’t bother sharing this article with them.
We actually don’t expect 100%
Everyone says it but it doesn't make sense. We speak with so much inspiration and motivation in our voice as we ask our teams to deliver 100%. They actually can’t. Even Steve Jobs with all his ruthlessness did not get any 100%. It is unrealistic. I mentioned Jobs because he is the example many people give while they forget to mention the likes of Richard Branson who show this thing doesn’t have to be about making people almost die trying or go home. If Jobs got 100%, he wouldn't have had to continue to scream at people at every other product development cycle as he wore down his own health (and this is something he himself said, forgive me). There is no perfect employee who knows their job 100%. And even if there is, they probably have relationship issues, or faith issues, or childhood issues, or existential crisis, or inferiority complex, or issues bordering on depression, or many of these at the same time. And if they don't have any of this and are fully happy, then it means they spend a good percentage of their time with either family or loved ones, or some other things they find joy in apart from work. There is no 100% anywhere and we need to stop asking for it.
We simply need to ask people to do better and let us know how we can help them do so per time. If we find that some surely aren’t ready to try, we need to let them know they would be better off elsewhere, while helping keep to their dignity as they will always be fully human, as equal as we are. There is never a need to dress people down or make them feel stupid. Failure at that role in your office doesn't equate to failure in their lives. Stop acting like God. You are one human being, and there are quite a few others, around 7 billion.
PS. We just launched the Africa Challenger Brands report, something that was only possible because our people chose to give their very best, not because we ENSURED it. You can check it out for yourself 👉 www.africachallengerbrands.com