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We all want to be part of a great organization and a high-performance workplace. We want to be at our best, surrounded by colleagues who help us and challenge us, doing work that is financially rewarding and personally meaningful. But there’s more than one kind of successful organization, and there are many kinds of productive workplaces. What matters at work is whether the value proposition that drives your company is in sync with the values that motivate you, whether the culture that defines life inside an organization is compatible with your personal style, and whether the people with whom you work make you think, grow, even laugh.
Which means that all of us, no matter where we are in our careers or what sort of work we do, have to reflect on the kind of workplace that works for us. Do we thrive on the rush of external and internal competition, or are we at our best in an environment built on collaboration? Do we hunger for individual achievement and personal recognition, or do we revel in team spirit and collective success? Are we prepared to sacrifice emotional and psychological satisfaction for financial rewards, or is doing something meaningful more important than making money?
I’ve had the opportunity, over the last two decades, to immerse myself in some of the world’s most creative, energetic, and productive workplaces, from health care to financial services, from Silicon Valley to Madison Avenue. These organizations have achieved tremendous success in the marketplace with vastly different approaches to the workplace. As I reflect on the many businesses I’ve visited and studied, I’ve identified four distinct kinds of workplaces, and I’ve come up with a set of 16 questions to help you figure out which kind works for you.
There are no right answers to these questions, of course; there’s no perfect workplace for everyone. Each of us has to figure out what kind of workplace gives us the best chance to do great work.
What are those four kinds of workplaces?
The company as community. This kind of workplace exudes an all-for-one, one-for-all spirit in which trust, teamwork, and peer-to-peer loyalty are bedrock principles rather than mere rhetoric. Customers matter, of course, as do the interests of partners and investors. But this workplace elevates the needs of employees above all other constituencies. The formula for business success starts with what’s right for the people in the business. For example, at Davita, a hugely successful health care provider based in Denver, Colorado, CEO Kent Thiry likes to say that his organization is a “community first and a company second.” He explains: “We have flipped the means and the ends. Having an adequately profitable business is the means. Building a real community of human beings is the end.”
A constellation of stars. These organizations are a collection of hard-driving, fiercely competitive individuals who measure their success against personal goals, and even against one another. The ethos is up-or-out, sink-or-swim, rank-and-yank. It’s a tough environment, but it’s the right environment for talented people who aspire to be superstars. Many investment banks and hedge funds operate this way, as do some law firms, consulting outfits, and tech titans. “Someone who is exceptional in their role is not just a little better than someone who is pretty good,” Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg famously told the New York Times. “They are 100 times better.” In workplaces built for stars, organizational success relies on individual achievement.
Not just a company, a cause. In this environment, employees worry less about personal happiness or individual triumphs and more about their collective impact. There is a self-effacing quality to these workplaces, a willingness to make sacrifices and go to extraordinary lengths to keep promises to customers and other constituencies. The spirit is “mission first” — do whatever it takes to get the job done. No company better captures this model than USAA, the fabulously successful financial services company that does business exclusively with active and retired military members and their families. USAA has become a passion brand, renowned for its out-of-this-world service, because grassroots employees identify so thoroughly with soldiers and their families, and put those interests above their own. That’s what it means to be a cause, as opposed to just a company.
Small is beautiful. Certain people, whether they’re motivated by a sense of mission or a thirst for individual achievement, are at their best in environments that are easy to navigate, where there are few obstacles between ideas and action, where a sense of urgency defines the pace of life. Last October entrepreneurship guru Bo Burlingham published the 10th-anniversary edition of his business classic, Small Giants: Companies That Choose to Be Great Instead of Big. The book’s title and subtitle capture the spirit of this kind of workplace, where human scale matters more than massive revenue and big market share. In a world where smaller and smaller groups of people can achieve bigger and bigger things, size really does matter — and smaller can often be more rewarding than bigger.
There’s nothing like doing work that matters, but that means finding a company, organization, or team with a workplace that’s right for you. In a world with so much interesting and important work to do, we all deserve the chance to be at our best and to be surrounded by colleagues who bring out the best in us.
Author’s note: I’ve created a 16-question quiz on my website to help you figure out the best workplace for you. It’s free, but you do have to enter your email address to get your results.