Our culture is dominated by images of heroes. We see them everywhere—the athlete who makes a game-winning play, the movie character who saves the city with seconds to spare, and our fire, rescue, police, and military just about every day.
One of man’s oldest storytelling structures is the Hero’s Journey—where the hero is called to adventure from the ordinary world, is guided through trials and tribulations by a mentor, and then emerges victorious against a final and most dangerous foe.
Sound familiar? It’s a powerful pattern so ingrained in us, we use it to unconsciously craft our narratives about the world. We are conditioned to applaud and reward heroes.
In the business realm, for example, entrepreneurs are lauded for their “hustle mentality” when starting a venture. “When you adopt and embrace the many facets of the hustle mentality, you’ll set yourself up to succeed beyond your wildest dreams,” writes co-founder Sujan Patel in Entrepreneur magazine. Indeed, startups tend to be “all hands on deck,” because if you don’t ship the order or ink the next deal, your firm might not survive to see another day. Even in large firms, stories of heroic behaviors to “save the big account” or “ship the order on time” often become legend.
Although there are certainly a few scenarios where heroics are necessary at work, when your business model takes hold and you begin to scale, you have to think about operating differently.
Here’s why: Heroic behaviors are neither scalable nor sustainable.
Imagine you have an employee who works until 2:30 a.m. to meet a deadline and submit a large proposal for a new account. The next morning, tired and bleary-eyed, they’ll bask in their colleagues’ heroic praises. It seems as if their sacrifice was worth it.
But was it really? What’s going to happen the NEXT time the business demands a late night? They probably won’t be quite as enthusiastic about doing it again, despite the praise! What’s worse, as the heroic behavior becomes more normalized, employees receive fewer accolades the second time around—and even fewer on the third, fourth, etc. Eventually, they become bitter and resentful about having to constantly be a “hero” just to keep the business running, which is one of several reasons I hold leaders accountable for “quiet quitting” and “the great resignation,” which you can explore more deeply in this article.
People and teams should certainly be recognized for going above and beyond. But structuring your firm to require heroic behavior doesn’t work. Systems must be put in place to allow the business to scale—sustainably—over time.
Here are three approaches to drastically reduce the need for heroic behaviors in your organization.
When it comes to scaling your firm, you should aim for what organizational design experts call “casual success.” While the term itself may evoke images of employees lounging on couches eating grapes, rest assured that’s not the case at all.
Casual success looks like an employee showing up for work, working all day, going home at a reasonable time, and accomplishing everything they need to do. Their hair isn’t on fire, they aren’t interrupted 25 times with emergencies, and their stress levels don’t require blood pressure medication. The need for heroics to operate is almost zero.
The problem is, business models often aren’t built to scale around the idea of casual success. Consider this scenario: When your company was a small operation, you had two employees on each client account. As you scale, you naturally assume each client will require two employees, so you form all aspects of your business model—service pricing, hiring, etc.—around this structure.
But as the firm grows, you add more variables like new services and deeper, more complicated client relationships—all of which consume additional resources to execute well. Suddenly, you realize that two employees per client isn’t enough to meet the demand. But since that’s the way you structured your business model and priced your services, you don’t have the financial resources to hire additional employees.
Now, the only way you can maintain the operation is through frequent heroic acts. In effect, you’ve asked two people to do the work of three because the structure of your firm isn’t designed to scale. Employees burn out, become frustrated, and the quality of their work drops, which results in the employees, the clients—or both—going elsewhere. Everyone loses!
The trick here is to anticipate these issues and account for them in your business model. Though you may not know exactly what your company will look like in the future—and you may have to go through some trial and error to figure things out—it’s imperative to create scalable structures, processes, and the right financial model to fuel the people and other resources you need. The sooner you can bake casual success into your business model, the higher your odds of scaling without heroics.
Good processes also contribute to creating scale without heroics. Your business processes may have worked effectively three years ago, but they could be outdated due to your firm’s current size and complexity. This is an easy item for leaders to ignore, tolerate, or outright deprioritize, because most suboptimal processes still, mostly, work. But at what cost?
Try to avoid being stuck in the “this is how we’ve always done it” mental model I see derail many leaders. If your business is different than it was three years ago, your processes should be too!
To determine which processes within your firm need to be revamped, ask: Where’s the drama? What aspects of execution are colored by confusion, frustration, delays, added costs, panicked phone calls and/or fires to extinguish? If any of those symptoms are present inside your operation, the odds are that you have a process to improve.
Process accountability is often a factor here as well. In this case, the process itself might be sufficient, but the accountability for the outcomes isn’t clear. My go-to question when I hear about process-related execution drama is, “Who is accountable for the process?” Because most organizational processes cut horizontally across organizational silos–think about an order, for example, moving from sales to manufacturing to shipping to customer service to accounting–process accountability is often unclear.
Check your firm’s three to five core processes to ensure that there is single point accountability (i.e. ONE PERSON) for the outcome. Just like you use meeting rhythms to synchronize and communicate within your divisions, groups, and teams, begin using them for your core processes as well.
Think about it this way—effective processes with clear accountability are usually quite boring to watch because there’s rarely any drama, and certainly no room for heroic behaviors!
Another way to reduce heroics is ensuring that you don’t encourage it in the first place. When my coaching clients codify their culture via Core Values or Cultural Commitments, I ask them to name people in the firm who embody culturally consistent behaviors in a positive way. Inevitably, my clients name their internal heroes.
You cannot build a sustainable culture by either intentionally or unintentionally rewarding heroic behavior!
For example, I have a client with a Core Value of “Do The Work.” Although the underlying message of this Core Value is sound, over time both leadership and staff lost track of its intended and defined meaning. Every “Do The Work” story in the business became about someone going “above and beyond” to get the work done. In other words, the stories and behavioral norms shifted the value’s meaning to heroism.
After I pointed out that the company’s leaders were unintentionally encouraging heroism, they chose to rename and clarify the value. Now, the Core Value is called “Own It,” and it is defined with great accountability—but no heroics. The stories and behavioral norms have changed as a result.
Yes, defining the right Core Values is important, but this is not enough on its own. Leaders need to encourage staff to share non-heroic examples of Core Value behaviors. The simplest, most effective way to do this is to ensure that at least one Core Value story is told within each daily huddle to reinforce the right behaviors without heroics.
That doesn’t imply you should punish heroic behaviors if and when they occur (and, yes, they will!). To the contrary, you should appreciate employees who, when the circumstances require, go above and beyond in a heroic manner. It’s what you do next that makes all the difference!
Speak with them 1-on-1 the next day and ask, “How do we figure out a way to never have to do this again?” This conversation helps solve the structural problem, improves execution, and actively discourages heroic behavior.
Heroics will inevitably play a part to launch and establish just about every business. But as your business model gains traction, you have to start thinking about how to eliminate the need for heroic behavior.
In most situations, the sooner you can move from a heroic model to one of casual success, the better. One indicator of when to start looking at systems and processes is when heroic actions start shifting from a feeling of excitement to frustration.
In the formative stages of a company, an act of heroism is met with high fives and cheers. But once those celebrations transform into questions like “Jim pulled another all-nighter? Is he okay?”—that’s when you know it’s time to start making some cultural and structural changes.
Any firm will have some heroic stories, but they can’t be the norm. Start scaling your models and systems early, and make sure your Core Values are crafted in a way that they don’t unintentionally encourage heroics. Finally, give necessary heroes due credit, but be sure to follow-through to remedy the root cause. Remember, heroic behaviors usually indicate that something within your firm needs to change.
Leave the heroics to athletes, movie characters, and first responders! Your staff, your customers, your suppliers, your shareholders, and your family will thank you.
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