It's a favorite warning of safe-sex campaigners: "Anytime you go to bed with someone, you're sleeping with all his former romantic partners." The business corollary: anytime you hire someone, you're getting the wisdom of all his former employers into the bargain.
Everyone knows that companies have their own individual DNA and that that DNA -- for good or ill -- is inherited by people who work there. Headhunters stalk the executive suites of iconic corporations to satisfy clients hankering for a little of that G.E. or P&G magic. But stars from starry companies aren't the only ones who transfer ideas from old to new employers. With the exception of tabula rasa recent grads, everyone you hire is a product of lessons learned elsewhere. Myopic companies snuff that stuff at the door to hasten cultural acclimation. Smart companies mine it.
Concrete matters like processes (not trade secrets, of course) are relatively easy to extract. If cross-pollination doesn't occur naturally, you can force it with a few questions. "Any quality metrics you ran across at Allied Alliances that we could use here?" "You started at Sorghum Systems as an intern, right? What specifically did you like about that program?" Often, however, the most valuable insights are more amorphous: philosophies of work or management that transplants have absorbed from former peers and bosses. These leak out slowly, as a natural part of collaboration, mentoring, and casual conversation about the job. My own guidelines for writing are probably 80% cribbed from talented editors I have worked with over the years. I generously share those ideas with any poor schlubs who ask, and they, in turn, benefit from the wisdom of people they've never met.
Releasing the embedded knowledge and experience of employees is an obvious best practice. What some leaders forget, however, is that knowledge they themselves embed is part of their legacy. Every so often a CEO will tell me that he's thinking of committing his management philosophy to a book, the better to enlighten and inspire emerging leaders. I gently discourage this, chiefly because I'm afraid he's going to send me the manuscript for comment. The argument I make, however, is genuine. A book is probably unnecessary because every day you live out that philosophy -- every worker that you touch with it -- spreads your message more powerfully than any other medium.
Say you are acutely aware of the value of others' time, and so pledge in word and deed to keep meetings short and communications efficient. Say you believe everyone is proud of different things, and so customize your praise to maximize individuals' gratification. Say you feel people work best using systems of their own devising, and so keep company-imposed rules and procedures to a minimum. Many of your employees will appreciate these things, and some will internalize them. That latter group -- issuing out to become bosses in their own right -- will seed their new environments with your ideas, enhanced or modified by their own. You don't have to articulate why you do what you do, although it often aids dissemination.
Of course you won't get credit for much of that exported wisdom. But surely that's not the point. In your own modest way you are improving not just the practices of your own business, but the practice of business. And you can always imagine that somewhere a former underling, being honored for a grand accomplishment, is accepting the accolades with these words: "Everything I know I learned from Trevor."
Last updated: Jan 2, 2008
LEIGH BUCHANAN is an editor at large for Inc. magazine. A former editor at Harvard Business Review and founding editor of WebMaster magazine, she writes regular columns on leadership and workplace culture. @LeighEBuchanan