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Contributed By Todd Richardson

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Your organization’s policies and processes are manifestations of your culture. For example, if you want a nimble workplace that values succinct and candid communications, don’t implement a 75-page handbook, filled with legalese. Make sure your internal structures are reflective of the culture you want. Take a look at these three leading companies who have stripped away what tradition calls for in an organization and created something more natural, more sensible, and more successful.

Patagonia, Inc.

Values: Patagonia’s company values, or their reason for being, is to build the best product, cause no unnecessary harm, and use business to inspire and implement solutions to the environmental crisis.

They’re famed for a rather non-stereotypical culture you might expect of outdoor enthusiasts – minimalist style, bias toward simplicity and utility, love of wild places – exemplified in founder Chouinard’s book, Let My People Go Surfing. Their sports entail risk, require soul, and invite reflection, and these are reflected in their organization.

Employees: Blurring the lines between work and play works for Patagonia, because their employees love the outdoors. Workers set their own hours, the headquarters are locked on weekends, and people surf during lunch. The CEO can be spotted in a bike jersey meeting with directors after his lunchtime ride. They encourage time away with company sponsored climbing trips, two-month paid parental leaves, and two-month paid sabbaticals to work on environmental projects. They spend significant time outdoors because they believe that to think outside the box, sometimes you need to get outside the cubicle.

Development: Chouinard has coined the term MBA, or “managing by absence, as his leadership philosophy. When at the office, he’s all in, but he does a lot of business traveling around doing outdoor things and talking to outdoor people. Last year, he and the CEO were together on a fishing trip when they noticed that their feet were cold and their Patagonia waders weren’t quite up to the job, so they launched a series of product improvements.

Growth: They have little interest in mediocre products or fast profits, and they champion environmental preservation. Their unorthodox approach to growth is perhaps best exemplified by their famous 2011 black Friday ad, ”Don’t buy this jacket” which took a full page in The New York Times. The company has been giving to environmental causes almost since inception, and they work to reduce their own corporate pollution.

The company is a talent magnet and receives an average of 900 resumes for every job opening.

Netflix

The Netflix Culture Deck slideshare is famed for how effectively it strips and rewrites standard policies.

Values: They believe in hiring stunning people and giving them freedom and responsibility as they tackle hard problems – seems generic enough to be applicable to many companies, but their policies radically reflect those values.

Employees: They insist on high performance, not hard work – Sustained “B” level performance, despite “A for effort” gets a generous severance package, with respect. Sustained “A” level performance, despite minimal effort, gets more responsibility and great pay. Since they don’t track hours per day or per week, they rewrote their vacation policy: “Netflix Vacation Policy and Tracking: There is no policy or tracking. There is also no clothing policy at Netflix, but no one comes to work naked. Lesson: you don’t need policies for everything.” Similarly, their policy for expensing and travel simply reads, “Act in Netflix’s best interest.” Rather than try to control, they create a context of freedom and responsibility in which high performers can do great work. They don’t do formalized development like career planning or rotations. They give people the opportunity to develop themselves by surrounding them with stunning colleagues and big challenges.

Growth: They believe that with the right people, they can have a culture of creativity and self-discipline instead of a culture of process adherence, so they seek qualities like “self-motivating, self-improving, and picks up trash lying on the floor.” In their creative-inventive market, the ideal growth model allows for failure and rapid recovery, and too many processes inhibit that. Maximum growth comes from minimum restrictions.

Semco Partners

Even among like-minded companies, Semco is on a level all its own. Their deviation began 30 years ago, initiated in large part by owner Ricardo Semler – author of a slew of bestsellers, guest lecturer at Harvard and MIT, and by all accounts a brilliant eccentric. He believes in responsibility but not hierarchy, and thinks strategic planning and vision are barriers. He disputes the value of growth, control, and measuring success in numbers at all. He says they’re looking for wisdom: “We’ve all learned how to work on Sunday night, but very few of us have learned how to go to the movies on Monday afternoon.”

Employees: Suffice it to say that with thousands of employees, they had only two people in HR, and thankfully one retired. There are no organization charts, no five-year plans, and no values statement, much less a vacation policy. Workers set their own pay, subordinates hire and review their supervisors, and employees initiate moves into and out of businesses. No one knows how many people they employ, and they never bother to find out, because they say employment contracts are too much trouble and it’s useless information anyway.

Growth: In a corporate world of tireless pursuit of growth, they seem unconcerned with it at all. If you and Semco agree you’ll sell 57 widgets per week and you sell them all by Wednesday, Semler would like you to “please go to the beach and start again on Monday. Don’t create a problem for us and for manufacturing, so we have to buy new companies because you sold too many widgets.” What’s more, instead of waiting until retirement to do all the things you’ve been wanting to do, “why don’t you go and do them next week?” They’ll sell you back your Wednesdays for 10% of your salary.

Development: Semler says, “I own a $160 million company, and I have no idea what business it’s in. I know what Semco does—we make things, we provide services—but I don’t know what Semco is. Nor do I want to. Once you say what business you’re in, you put employees into a mental straitjacket. It’s a ready-made excuse for ignoring new opportunities: ‘We’re not in that business.’” Rather than dictate from on high, they let employees shape growth through their individual interests and initiatives. They create conditions for people to get involved and exhilarated, to get to do things their way and see if it works. They give freedom because they’ve found that with autonomy, people act in their best interests, and by extension their organizations’ best interests, and that forcing change is the surest way to frustrate change. Semco started as a manufacturer. Last year most of their business was in services. Now, they’re extending into e-business, despite having no plan to go digital.

They’ve grown 27.5% a year for 14 years. $100,000 invested in Semco 20 years ago would be worth $5.4 million today. As Fortune described, “obviously it’s all insane, except that it seems to work.”

When it comes to aligning your rulebook to fit your company, be intentional and strategic, even if it goes against conventional corporate wisdom. If you trust your employees, if you want to give them autonomy and space for creativity, if you want to get the best out of the top talent you’ve worked hard to get – structure a context that reinforces and supports that culture.

Do not be hemmed in by traditional thoughts around the need to have robust policies and procedures. The worst thing any company could do is to cut and paste a handbook or policies and procedure manual from the internet or from a template provided by their Chamber of Commerce.  Instead, take the time to reflect the nuances of your unique culture in any policy, procedure or rule.  Ensure your culture is dictating the policies/procedures/rules and NOT the other way around.

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