I once had the pleasure of working in what you might call a utopian workplace.
- We were a mission-driven organization, disrupting a traditional marketplace with more efficient products.
- We had a vision for the future that could improve the lives of millions of people.
- We were evangelical about our new approach. After many years of educating our client base and building trust, we were getting traction. We were winning more deals. Getting more referrals. We were growing fast.
- Our hiring rubric? People had to be “nice, smart, with fire in the belly.” Smarts were expected, ambition and drive were highly valued, but you could succeed only if you were a decent person who would operate with kindness. Once a new senior hire was rude and demanding about their relocation package. The team admin had his offer rescinded.
- Our corner offices? Well, we didn’t have any. The corner rooms with the best views were conference rooms, where we could collaborate. But other offices and halls were filled with diverse people. Women of color in executive and management roles. For a few years, we had a female CEO. She had worked her way up in the firm, having started as an administrative assistant.
- Our mindset? We could do anything we put our minds to. People tried new things, grew their skill sets, moved internally, started new initiatives, and brought an entrepreneurial spirit into projects around the world. Our clients saw it and appreciated it.
This all made a huge impression on me. Yes, in large part because it was my first work experience. See, that’s what I thought work was supposed to be like. Before this, I’d been at an all women’s college, earning a double degree in Political Science and Women’s Studies. I experienced all the things I expected: Women in leadership? Check! Meritocracy? Check! Changing the world? Check!
I’m sad to say, it lasted only a couple of years. For us, it was the inevitability of change. We grew larger, had some heartbreaking turnover, and aligned with a new owner. A new culture evolved. It was more aggressive, more political. At one point in the evolution, I remarked to our new CEO that it was harder for women to be heard internally in the new culture. He asked if it might just be that the firm had grown larger: it was harder for everyone to be heard internally, wasn’t it? I stopped to think about it. He was right. It was harder for everyone. But it became particularly hard for women. And anyone else who didn’t fit into the firm’s changing image of what made a great leader.
The leader persona became the white, male, savvy-talkers who could play politics. Over time, this leader-type ascended to every major position. With another corporate ownership change, the culture shifted yet again. The meritocracy became further eroded by a subculture that relied on the relationships amongst executives and everyone else trying to manage up. It got super competitive internally. Biased feedback became commonplace. Individual people were silenced. Whole groups went unheard.
People adapted, spending less time on the core business in order to spend more time on internal politics. Senior leaders grew paranoid about being knocked out of their position and built alignments for protection. Diversity numbers began to decline. Business growth moderated; it was still buoyed by a strong foundation, but stalled in innovation.
Years later on a flight home from a business trip, I sat next to a colleague who had joined the firm years later, reminiscing about those utopian years. As I wrapped up the memories to move the conversation to something more current, she stopped me and said, “You’re right to mourn that time.”
We both paused to reflect. It struck me that the workplace utopia is far too rare.
It’s hard to build, but everyone wins when you get all cylinders firing at once in a true meritocracy, built by special people who prioritize the team and its mission. We can start by making sure that our teams are diverse, by appreciating the differences among us and harnessing the spirit of a group on a mission to make the world better.
How might you start today? Follow us on LinkedIn and share your story with us.