Engagement at Work

I worked in a small consulting company until about six years ago.  I worked there for almost 10 years, it was an amazing and special place, and I feel like it’s where I grew up – professionally and personally.  The company was started by two brothers and one of their friends.  At the time, they all worked at one of the big 6 (there were six at that time) firms, but wanted to specialize in health care consulting, so they borrowed some money from someone’s mom and set up shop out of a garage.

When I started working there, they had about 300 employees and were privately held.  When I left ten years later, they were public, international, and had over 3000 employees.  It was a hell of a ride.  It’s hard to fully convey the passion and the culture of the place without sounding like we all prayed to Xenu.  Seriously, it was referred to as a cult more often than not.  The loyalty and engagement I (and everyone) had to this company has been unparalleled.  I know it won’t happen again in my career.  When I first started, there was really only one policy – Don’t Sleep At or With the Client.  Like all no-shit policies, this was born of necessity after both occurred on a regular basis.

Alcohol was referred to as a core value – in fact, our CFO regularly rolled a drinks cart around the office on Fridays starting around 3, just to say hello and make sure everyone was doing okay, and for obvious reasons, this was incredibly popular.  To this day I still believe that a beer is critical for team building.  There was so much pressure to let this company take over our lives, that it was a rare person who maintained a healthy social life away from work.  Even now most of my best friends are from my time there.  Many people came and went, but the bonds extended way beyond standard collegial ties.  I’m not even going to go into the annual retreat (called University, fooling no one) that had so many stories, it’s a whole book on it’s own.

I’m thinking about this time a lot now for a couple of reasons.  Last week I had dinner with 3 former colleagues from the firm.  Since leaving the company, they have started their own company – in fact, there are now at least 3 small to mid-sized companies made up entirely of people who worked together at the firm, and I’m jealous that I’m not in one of them.  The fact that so many people chose to extend their experience and relationships into their next role is a testament to the incredible culture that was created there.  At some point in the conversation, typical to the normal course of discussion when I am talking to any ex-Firm-er, we got around to talking about how we will never have that experience again, and how lucky we were to have it in the first place.  We then immediately rush into some kind of discussion about who slept with whom.

The other reason that this is resounding with me now is that I’m in a new company and a new job.  As the HR person, the first few months in a job are rough.  No one talks to you unless they have to – so something needs to be four minutes from exploding before anyone tells me – and it can be lonely.  The key to being a business partner is developing relationships.  This takes time, and as you can tell from my post about introversion, it’s not the easiest thing for me to do.  One of the things I’ve noticed, though, when I talk to different leaders about the culture here, is that while they are professing to be completely on board, they doubt that everyone else is.  I believe one of the key points here is the simple fact when you treat your employees and colleagues like they are friends, you build a culture where no one wants to let down their friends.  I’ve never seen a group of people try harder to not let each other down.  I miss the job and the people almost every day.

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