“Would you like Michael, Michael, or Michelle?”
March 18, 2009 • Scott McMurray
The History Factory’s internal phone list is alphabetized by first name. After writing corporate histories as a freelancer for THF for a few years, I joined the company full time two years ago. When I saw my name on the list, I thought, “This is more than a little affected.” But I soon realized that it really did say something about the company. Our founder and CEO is Bruce—not Mr. Weindruch; Mr. Weindruch, Bruce’s father, is wintering in Florida with Mrs. Weindruch and the rest of the 80-somethings, as Bruce noted in last week’s post.
If your CEO goes by his first name, so does everybody else, at least in a small company. How big do you have to get before you lose that family/tribal feel? We hope to test those limits, though given the current state of the economy, it is not likely to be an issue this month or next.
Even within our corporate tribe there are divisions. (Tribe may have been rendered near meaningless by the Survivor series, which I can’t stomach any better than contestants can stomach the bugs they seem to regularly ingest. How about a dose of true reality TV—Survivor Detroit? That might hold my interest.) For historical and to an extent functional reasons we have an archival-access side and a creative solutions side of the company, as well as strategy and consulting and business critical research. Within the creative solutions side we have editorial—where I spend my time when not working with the business development crew—curatorial, and design.
Is this the way we would be structured if we were just starting out today instead of celebrating our 30th anniversary? Probably not. We are constantly encouraging our employees, as well as our clients, to think in terms of outcomes, not outputs. The outcome is the goal we want to achieve by producing a particular output, be it a book, museum-quality exhibit, series of oral histories, a gala event, or all of the above. The desired outcome is to leverage one’s heritage so that it helps catapult you to where you want to be in the future, rather than treat your heritage as a millstone that is keeping you weighed down with bad habits and outmoded routines.
It is time for us to eat our own cooking. Bruce, true to form, will soon take the lead in restructuring our operations in part to be more focused on outcomes, rather than outputs. Over the past three decades our best clients have adapted during lean times so that they could thrive when growth returns. That has always been our goal as well. Stay tuned.
Meantime, when we talk about heritage, we aren’t by definition talking about events from eons past. One client recently commissioned us to capture the history of its past dozen years. The company realized, in the process of working with us, that this period in its nearly ninety-year history represents a crucial phase in which the organization, while remaining true to its historical values, remade itself into an entity capable of prospering for another ninety years or more.
Why bother? Because capturing history in the making can be a key driver in boosting morale and employee retention via identification with the company and a shared sense of history and purpose. That kind of employee identification is a plus at any time. It is especially important during periods when economic uncertainty drives job insecurity. We are going to pull out of this slump sooner or later. Those of us with engaged workforces organized around and focused on outcomes, not just outputs, will be in the strongest position to benefit from the inevitable rebound in business activity.
Tell us about your internal phone directory and what it says about your company. How big can an organization get and still operate on a first-name basis? Is that even a reliable marker, or should we be focusing on some other gauge of optimal size in which coworkers pull together to realize the desired outcome for the client?
Please feel free to contact me, Bruce, or anyone at The History Factory with your thoughts or concerns. But let’s let Mr. Weindruch enjoy his vacation.