In the last few years, information and communication technology (ICT) has provided opportunities for startups to reach new markets which hitherto would not have been possible. ICT has redesigned commerce and facilitated social, political and economic developments of countries by offering efficient means of transacting businesses and enabling human collaborations. It has transformed institutions, communities and states into knowledge-based economic structures and data societies with electronically linked interdependent relationships. The result is a networked society where competition is no more local, but global. A Brazilian web developer has to be concerned about a potential threat from Silicon Valley. Consequently, startups pursue talents to stay competitive. And some of these talents become influential and expect the company values diluted for them.
Over the years, I have seen startup founders struggle with managing talented business and tech hires. These people get the job done, but some cherry-pick values they adhere to. Because of their good hard numbers or design expertise, they always get away with things that would have fired others. Too bad, a company that fails to recognize that values matter as much as numbers has its days numbered.
I have been involved in startups. I have seen very bright employees exerting influences with the notion that if anyone tries to call them to other, they will leave. For them, the immutable rule in business that value is cardinal to the health of any organization does not apply. It is always based on the illusion that what matters is hard-number-performance and when that is good, everything is fine. Founders get into a trap – he executes very well and we just adjust for him.
Unfortunately, if there is anything in a startup that must be constant, it is an environment of integrity and values. This is not the written culture on the office walls; it is the one staff demonstrates – internally and externally. It is what the suppliers, customers and partners know about the company; no one should be exempted from it.
When businesses operate in value-challenging environment like nations with rampant corruption, an agile Board must work hard to know how the hard numbers are coming. A recent bribery allegation against a Nigerian oil man shows why suspending values for great numbers is a risky strategy. Nigeria’s Zenon boss, Femi Otedola, was heralded as a business genius who out of nowhere amazed a net worth of $1.2 billion. From insider trading to bribery, he is unraveling. Today, investors, workers and partners are imperiled because the Board failed to lead.
Creating companies like IBM and GE with more than a century of existence can only happen when there is value. When a company has a culture that goes beyond mere words to one that is integrated in the bloodstream of its operation, with consequences for defaulters, it has a chance for the future. If one builds great numbers without value, sooner or later the company will crash. For me, values are more important than the hard numbers. The numbers do not guarantee anything permanent but values will constantly define a company. Great employees are only those with good numbers and good values.
Startups must grow on values which everyone including management must demonstrate. Without strong culture, good governance will not be possible and no company can survive in the long haul. It is risky to sacrifice values for performance numbers because both must never be isolated if sustainable effective systems must be established. That ensures that performance goals are practicable and achievable to avoid pressuring employees into ethical quagmire. This is important because while we report numbers, companies win on values!