#60 Growth with Friends: The Value Of Connections At Work

“I hate every mother freaking thing about the place.”

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That was my answer to the very first question of the interview. An interview that, I assumed, was about to end before it really even got started.

THE BACKSTORY

I hustled the couple blocks from my downtown Chicago office and hopped the train to O’Hare airport. My interviewer, a guy by the name of Ed Clarke, had scheduled a long layover so we could meet.

It was a convenient arrangement, but I wasn’t feeling good about the interview.

The headhunter had only told me two things about Clarke. He looked like a drill sergeant, and he’d been a manager at Oracle Corporation. Neither of these points brought me comfort.

The fact that he was ex-Oracle management flat out bothered me. Oracle was the company I was trying to leave because I despised their culture. A culture that, I assumed, he’d helped build.

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The drill sergeant thing was just me over-stereotyping. I guessed, based on the description, that he would be an autocratic command and control type. And, since I’m not good at taking orders, that meant we would clash.

If I hadn’t been so desperate to escape Oracle I would have turned down the interview. But instead I found myself wandering around the bowels of O’Hare. Trying to find the coffee shop where we were to meet.

FIRST IMPRESSIONS

As I walked into the place I couldn’t miss Ed Clarke. The description had been spot on. He looked like a meathead power-lifting drill sergeant. Square, tight-cropped haircut and arms as thick as my legs. My anti-authority radar was going berserk.

What a freaking waste of time this was gonna be. We shook hands, sat down, and he rattled off his first question. 

“What do you think of Oracle?”

I paused, and almost launched into my standard interviewing song and dance. "Oracle's been an amazing learning experience blah, blah, blah...

But something went wrong. I snapped...

“I hate every mother freaking thing about the place.”

Silence. We stared at each other - both stunned. I’d crossed the line of interviewing etiquette. And I’d probably also offended him by crapping all over the Oracle culture that I assumed he’d helped build.

So I started to get up. Rationalizing that I didn’t want to work for this clown anyway. Thinking I’d tell my wife over dinner that I’d set a new record for shortest interview in history - one single question. 

And then - a huge smile broke out across his drill sergeant face. 

“Amen, brother. I hated that freaking place too.”

Those were the sweetest words I’d heard in a long time - at work. And we spent way too long trying to top each others “Oracle sucks” stories. As I walked out of that dark, dingy coffee shop a couple hours later, I felt like I’d spent the afternoon with an old friend.

And just a few weeks later I accepted the job at that little tech startup company. I'd be working for Ed Clarke trying to sell a pre-release piece of software into a market that didn't yet exist. The company name was Powersoft Corporation and my first day of work was April Fools Day of 1991.

START AT THE END

Three years and eight months later, this was the headline in the New York Times.

Sybase to Acquire Powersoft

And here are a couple quotes from that article…

“Sybase Inc… said today that it planned to acquire the Powersoft Corporation in a stock swap valued at more than $940 million.”

“By purchasing Powersoft… Sybase would be acquiring the leading maker of development tools for client-server computing, with 40 percent of that market.”

So over those 44 amazing months at Powersoft…

Our value soared to north of 900 million dollars.
Our annual revenues went from nada to $133 million dollars.
Our profits averaged in the 10 to 15% range.
Our employees grew from a handful to 300+.

On a personal level I went from zip to leading a team that landed 1994 revenues of $50ish million dollars.

THE GOOD, THE BAD, AND THE GOOD

Those 44 months were amazing. Some of the highest highs of my career.

Those 44 months were gut-wrenching. Some of the most challenging moments of my career. (You might recall the time fiftyish thousand dollars disappeared from my paycheck ).

Those 44 months taught me more about people and motivation than any other period of my career. Although, many of the lessons I didn’t appreciate until later in life.

For instance, I under-appreciated how connected we all were. I’ve never before or since worked at a company where I felt like so many people had my back. Across every department, damn-neared to a person, I felt like I could count on people.

Now don’t take that statement as a sign of harmonious bliss.

We argued.
We bitched and moaned.
Plenty of things didn’t get done on time.

Life was far, far, far from perfect. But, through it all, this fast expanding group of people found a way to support each other.

FRIENDS AND FIT

I’d worked with great people before, made friends, and had my share of success. But Powersoft was the first time in my career where I experienced what I think of as FIT. It felt like the values and acceptable behaviors of the place were tailor made for me. And this FIT led to a feeling that I was SURROUNDED by FRIENDS. Recall last time that we defined FRIENDS this way…

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FRIEND - someone you have commonalities with, enjoy being around, are loyal to, and trust. You’re comfortable sharing non-confidential work-related stuff with them, as well as entry level personal stuff. These folks could number in the dozens.

That is a perfect description of what I experienced at Powersoft. Not an isolated case of having a FRIEND at work, but feeling like I was SURROUNDED by them. And the effect was powerful. Here’s a quote from a Harvard Business Review article that explains it better than I can.

“Employees report that when they have friends at work, their job is more fun, enjoyable, worthwhile, and satisfying. Gallup found that close work friendships boost employee satisfaction by 50% and people with a best friend at work are seven times more likely to engage fully in their work.”

That, in a nutshell, was my life at Powersoft.

THE MAP

(This site is all about building a Map that will help me do work and life better. So at the end of each post I check in to see if any changes / insights come to mind.)

So I’ve told you this magical Powersoft story where we all live happily ever after. Now lets try to relate that experience to my Maps.

At Powersoft I was intrinsically motivated. I was recharging my own battery.

And guess who would have predicted it? Our favorite psychologist Frederick Herzberg. You can review his motivation theory HERE. And you can read how I interpreted his work HERE.  And here's a current picture of my Map for reference.

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Bottom line, I had the HELP GROWTH HAPPEN / motivation side of my map nailed. And the special sauce was, as predicted, healthy amounts of both FREEDOM and FEEDBACK.

Maybe it was a planned aspect of the culture. Or maybe it was just a byproduct of us moving so fast. Either way, Powersoft offered me unmatched FREEDOM. 

About the only rule I can remember came from a conversation with CEO Mitchell Kertzman. In a discussion on sales strategies he told me “you’ll never get fired for doing the right thing.”

That was pretty much it. I had to hit my numbers - there was plenty of accountability - but I also had the freedom to experiment. Coming from the autocratic structure I'd experienced at Oracle, I felt unchained.

But don’t take that FREEDOM statement as a lone wolf kind of thing. I had latitude, but I also had support at the ready. At any moment I could call any person in the company and get FEEDBACK, advice, help.

A perfect recipe for motivation as depicted on the right side of my Map.

But what about the left side of the Map? BE FAIR DAILY. Culture. Everything that surrounds the actual doing of the work. Did this soft stuff even matter since the motivation side was working so well?

Of course it mattered. My great FIT with the Powersoft culture meant that I understood the unwritten rules of the place almost immediately. The way things ran made sense to me, so I lived each day with…

Less friction
Less politics
Less distractions
Less of the frustrating corporate crap that drains your attention and your soul.

I spent maximum time and energy on task. A productivity and creativity gold mine.

Which, in mapspeak, goes like this…

Powersoft was an adventure that matched my WHY.
With FRIENDS that FIT my ME.
With FRIENDS that gave me plenty of FREEDOM.
WITH FRIENDS that gave me assertive FEEDBACK.

So, at a high level, that's how my Powersoft experience matches up to my Maps.

And Ed Clarke, my interviewer, 100% embodied that Powersoft spirit. There was something about him and that interview that got inside my head. Which led me to take the job even though the starting pay and benefits sucked.

And thank God I did. That decision led to the finest years of my career and to the beginning of a great FRIENDship. 

That’s all for today. 

Stop by next time as I try to draw a diagram of how all this stuff - Maps, friends, connections, vulnerability - works together.

***Note: This site works best when you read the posts in order. So please head to the ARCHIVE to get started.