Forget Customer Loyalty—Your Employees Matter More

If we think of leadership styles on the most basic of levels, a few obvious techniques come to mind. There is leadership modeled after imprinting. Think of employees as baby ducks blindly following the first thing they see when they open their eyes, usually a parent, without any independent thought whatsoever. There is also herding, which is like a sheepdog barking and corralling sheep with a leadership style based on totalitarian rule, a frightening bark, and reinforced with fear. But all of the entrepreneurs and leaders that I interviewed for my book, Shake the World: It’s Not About Finding a Job, It’s About Creating a Life, are exercising a far more employee-centric and nurturing leadership style as a means to create a dynamic, positive workplace; kindle creativity; cultivate employee loyalty; and grow their respective organizations through an environment and ethos of spreading good.

When Mickey McManus of MAYA Design (consistently rated as one of the best companies to work for in America) described his leadership style to me it sounded a lot like the Montessori method of education, in which children are not structured but rather encouraged to explore and play. This approach is based on the premise that if individuals, regardless of age, are given freedom in an enriched environment, it will accelerate and facilitate—not impede—hard work, thereby generating more positive results. In the broadest sense, this good-centric style of leadership democratizes the workplace—a workplace that has been traditionally structured as a hierarchy of clearly delineated power where no one is created equal, all employees are designated by a pay grade, and everyone knows their place.

As a means of differentiating their leadership style as unique, many of these entrepreneurs and leaders adopt playful job titles for both themselves and others at their organizations, where they are known by monikers such as “Chief Shoe Giver,” “Head Samurai,” “Possibility Accelerator” or “Loyalty Ninja”—not CEO, president, or director of marketing. Tony Hsieh of Zappos, whom I interviewed about failure, is known for taking a modest salary ($36,000) and he has a cubicle right in the middle of the pit with everyone else at the company. These entrepreneurs, regardless of the size or revenue of their organizations, all engage in Google-esque management techniques; where employee happiness, comfort, peace of mind—as well as personal recognition and validation— matter so much that they have become the company focus. Not to mention a source for increased innovation.

This type of leadership style, on the surface, can, at times, sound like superficial PR spin—or something that works in theory but not in practice. Allowing employees to come and go as they please so long as they get their work done might make sense at a large company like Google, but it certainly doesn’t work when your lawyer doesn’t show up to court, or when the fry cook decides to stay home one morning. So, translating these ideals can be tricky, and it needs to be done on a job-by-job basis. However, with an Internet connection, a parent who can stay home with a sick child and work from a computer may be more effective than that same employee at the workplace worried about that sick child at home. All of the data and research supports that this trend toward positive company culture with an employee-centric core is a valid source for increased innovation and corporate growth. Happy employees, statistics prove, are more productive across the board. We only have to look as far as Google to see that. Or Zappos. Or Apple. The one-day-a-week for exploring personal projects that Google gives its employees has resulted in massive innovation for the company, while the freedom that the aforementioned MAYA Design allows its team members has resulted in a few multimillion dollar offshoot companies that have been created and developed in-house.

Of all the people I interviewed for my book, the most compelling argument I heard for believing that, if left to their own devices, employees want to do their jobs and they want to do them well, was the story of a software engineer named Ron Avitzur who worked at Apple back in the early 1990s. Avitzur was so motivated to complete the project he was working on that after that project was cancelled and he was let go, he kept showing up at Apple campus to finish the job. He wasn’t a crazy rogue employee; he was a dedicated employee. Even though he often had to sneak into the building after his access card was denied, and even though he wasn’t being paid, he wanted to finish the project he had started. And he did. As a non-Apple employee, without pay or recognition, he developed the Pacific Tech graphing calculator that eventually shipped on millions of machines and landed an article in the New York Times.

As “good-centric” becomes the norm in business; as green, philanthropic, altruistic, and good become the standard—not only for employee culture, but for corporate ethos—we leave behind the companies and organizations of the twentieth century that were labeled “too big too fail,” as we evolve companies that are simply “too good to fail.”