Adam Bryant interviewed Lily Kanter, the co-founder and CEO of home decor company Serena & Lily, a very successful executive who held management positions for Microsoft, Deloitte & Touche, and IBM before she met Serena Dugan in 2003 and the two launched the company.
What caught my eye was a comment abou the increasing need for business people to be able to find meaning in their work:
Bryant: Tell me your thoughts on culture.
Kanter: I think we’re at this evolutionary time in business where it’s all about people. We have to embrace that and embrace people’s purpose and their souls to be successful in business. Because if they’re just coming to work to be a body and they’re on a treadmill all day, then you won’t have a happy culture if you don’t tap into what is really meaningful for them in life. So I’m very focused on that.
This is one of the single most important tasks for leadership today: work is drudgery unless it is animated by passion and a deep self-identification with the product or service delivered. Building culture based on meaning is critical.
Kater also offers some great insight into how companies get sclerotic and slow: devolving from fast-and-loose to tight-and-slow.
Kanter: You always need entrepreneurial people who can wear a hundred hats forever. It’s just finding the right positions for them, because they’re fantastic. They make stuff happen. And then you bring in process-oriented people who have deep backgrounds in a particular area of the business. You need that balance of both those types to build your organization. But you have to be careful, because the more process you get, the slower and more bureaucratic and less nimble you get. Things can get bogged down. You want to start a new initiative, and then there are 15 people in a room discussing it. I think keeping that entrepreneurial ability alive in a company is really important.
Bryant: What’s your approach?
Kanter: We go rogue. We tell people that if there’s an innovative project we’re working on, it’s going to be a small team. You need to be disruptive. I think entrepreneurial people can be very troublesome to certain organizations if they’re constantly disrupting processes. Of course, you need process. You need people knowing exactly what they’re doing every day to deliver the plan. So it’s important that when you do have disruptive, innovative projects, they should literally not be happening inside the organization, so that the current state of the organization is not turned upside down because of it.
Kanter thinks that institutionalizing rogue behavior — using small teams of four or less people to push disruptive ideas into reality — means taking it out of the mainstream work of the organization, so that most things are stable and steady, so that things can get done. But meanwhile, innovation and potentially disruptive ideas are still being cultured.
I might quibble a bit — since I think that everyone should have the ability to innovate in their own work activities — but constantly trying to change everything all the time is a recipe for chaos.
I wonder if Kanter is considering a book, because it seems like there is a lot she has to share.