What is a hero at work?
At some point, most of us have worked for an organization steeped in a “hero” based culture. This culture can be found within a company dominated and ruled by employees that go the extra mile, and are dedicated, intelligent, knowledgeable and hard-working. Your classic hero is generally ambitious and at the top of their game.
Prevalent in high-growth start-ups, a hero culture can also be found in mid-size and large organizations. This culture can help propel the launch of a new company. It seems that everyone is excelling as companies hit their sales numbers and business goals. The heroes are happy to have contributed to moving their company into newfound success while feeling a strong sense of accomplishment and achievement for saving the day.
On the face of it, everyone is a winner. What’s the problem?
At the early stages of the company’s life and establishment on the market, there is no problem for the company to have such a culture. They will likely have aggressive growth plans and a hero is instrumental in the early stages of this process. However, as the company scales and grows, a hero culture is extremely dangerous, ineffective and damaging.
Newly founded companies require heroes to jumpstart the business with their energy, intelligence, dedication and passion. Yet, as the company expands, rules need to be followed, making it critical for a company to change its ways and transition to a more business-process orientated culture.
Dangers and Risks
Heroes have a habit of keeping information to themselves, spending the majority of their time saving the day and fixing issues on their own. Rarely is enough time spent transferring their knowledge and skills to others so their expertise and knowledge can be replicated and put to good use throughout the business.
A hero-oriented culture thwarts the company’s ability to grow, scale and be more efficient. Heroes do not generally develop other team members’ skills or share valuable experience and insights with them. They do not want another hero to take them out of the limelight and steal their success. This cultural behavior is dangerous and damaging as the company cannot scale without their input. However, getting information from them is difficult.
The situation may become precarious because a growing company can encounter unpredictable changes such as technology shifts, economic shifts, a changing competitive landscape and compliance obligations. All of these require the business to be responsive, have operational efficiency and nimbly adapt to changing market conditions. If business processes mostly reside in individuals’ minds, there are no concrete rules to follow and the company will soon fall into utter chaos and decline.
Companies must transition to a more business process-based operating model with rule-based polices. This will help the company scale up and no longer gamble on relying on a specific group of people that may be unwilling to share their knowledge.
What is the answer?
While it’s natural to see a hero-based culture within start-ups, it can also appear in established companies. The challenge is to shift the mindset to follow business processes and rules. It’s challenging to adapt the hero mindset into a new way of thinking. Asking people to change is difficult, especially for someone addicted to feeling totally dependable. It’s akin to asking a superhero to hand over their superpower, rendering them no longer untouchable.
Business execs need to be aware of their internal culture and be able to spot a hero-type mentality, then formulate a plan to change it. The plans must be implemented from top-down management and not at the operational level.
It’s also important to not get rid of heroes as their energy and passion can be used to inspire others. However, it’s crucial to get the right mix and balance so they do not dominate your organization and expose you to risk. It’s up to leadership and management to kickstart change, enforce a different operating model based more on processes, while monitoring and managing culture change programs to ensure they stay on track. Knowing what culture you have within your organization is vital so you can spot the hero culture, make plans to shift the cultural model and thus eliminate risk of business failure.