In 2015, our digital agency, Softway, had a major problem. With every quarter that passed, our numbers dropped, our clients left and our employees quit. We had months where we pulled in depressingly low sales numbers. Our company was falling apart, and underlying these business problems there existed another issue: a toxic culture.
As leaders, many of us tend to assume the root causes of our business problems lie with strategy, execution, markets or external conditions, but often, it’s a culture problem — a people problem. People, and all they entail, including behaviors, attitudes, empathy (or lack thereof) and emotions, drive a company’s performance. Most importantly, when people are the cause of a business problem, a people-centric solution has to be the cure.
In my role as CEO, I didn’t recognize Softway’s negative culture right away, but when I did, the problem was clear. Our toxic culture stemmed from my own bad behaviors, like punishing mistakes and leading through fear. I couldn’t fix our problems by simply adopting a new strategy or process. I had to own the leadership problem behind our people issues, and that meant creating a culture of love that started at the top.
What Is Love As A Business Strategy?
Ask most people and they’ll say “love” and “business” are like oil and water — they don’t mix. Meant in a romantic sense, I would agree 100%. But when you hear the explanation of why love — the kind defined by empathy and support — not only can but should be a key part of your business strategy, I think you’ll agree that the two concepts belong together.
At its core, love as a business strategy means putting people at the center of every business decision. It involves empowering your employees, including them in conversations and giving them an environment where they can succeed. From your perspective as a leader, it also means recognizing that your employees are the ones who will ultimately drive the business’s success.
To ensure employees are set up to succeed, you want to think about who your decisions will impact and how any negative impacts will be mitigated. When considering a change, whether it be a new budget, policy or recruiting plan, ask yourself, “How will this affect different groups of people within the organization? How will they benefit?”
This line of thinking differs from what leaders normally consider in decision-making — financial and budget, timeline, headcount, supply chain, personal risk and more — but in our experience, you’ll get better results coming from a people-first perspective.
Find The Behaviors Tied To Your Business Problems
Now that you know what love as a business strategy means, you might see a disconnect between this approach and how your business currently runs. Maybe you suspect that a toxic culture is at the root of your business problems. Still, it can be difficult to know where to start to solve the issue.
Too often, leaders turn to cost-cutting as a solution to business problems, but that won’t fix a negative culture. Instead, I suggest beginning with a simple exercise that can help you identify behaviors that hurt your culture. To perform this exercise, choose a number (revenue, attrition, recruiting, etc.) that you want to improve. Then, find the root behavior contributing to that metric.
As an example, we used this exercise to find a solution to Softway’s low sales numbers. Around the time when we were starting to transform our culture from toxic to positive, we were still failing to hit our sales targets. Rather than just hiring more salespeople or pitching more clients, we investigated the behaviors of our current sales team. We found two problems: a lack of sales education and not enough empathy for the salespeople or customers.
We could have wagged our fingers at the team and threatened them with consequences, but that would have only hurt our already struggling culture. In the past, we might have done exactly that, but we chose to take a different approach. We invested in our sales team and gave them more training. We shifted from a fear-based, numbers-obsessed culture to one that supported and empowered our people. The result?
By creating a culture of love, our average sales grew into the six-figures. Our salespeople treated customers and colleagues with more empathy and care, and they learned how to win as a team.
Sharing Our Path To Profitability
The big takeaway from Softway’s story is that a culture of love leads to better outcomes for both people and businesses. Traditional business leaders tend to pit people against profitability, as though they’re diametrically opposed forces. My team and I believe they don’t have to be.
In fact, we more than believe it — we’ve lived it. After adopting love as a business strategy, our profitability soared. Our revenue increased by 300%, profit increased by 43%, revenue per employee increased by 269% and attrition decreased to just 12%, among other positive changes. Fixing our culture and the negative behavior behind it resolved many of the business problems that jeopardized our company’s long-term success.
Our culture shift also changed our company’s overall direction. Since practicing love as a business strategy, Softway has found a new mission in helping other companies transform their organizational cultures. We’ve taken the lessons learned from creating our own culture of love and used them to develop products, like our Seneca Leaders executive program.
By transforming our culture around love as a business strategy, Softway has not only become a profitable company, but also a workplace where people are invested, motivated and proud to work. Love as a business strategy saved our company and propelled it to new heights, and regardless of your company’s industry, it can have the same effect for you.