The Secret Red Flags of Tech Startups: Hollow Alignment

If you’re a developer or designer you’re going to get new opportunities. One probably hit your inbox now. Most will look great. Few will be great. Here’s how to sort the wheat from the chaff, the hunks from the skunks — and find the opportunity that really connects with you and helps you grow.

This is a continuation of the Red Flag Series — where we share experiences from developers and designers who have worked at many different tech startups — so you don’t make the same mistakes they have.

In the first post of this series, I explored the red flag of Over-Blaming QA. Here we’re going to focus on another critical red flag: hollow alignment and engagement.

Be wary of a company in which employees exhibit a lack of genuine buy-in to the larger vision and have only hollow investment in ‘The Why’ of the organization.

Here’s why: We’ve all heard the buzz-phrase, “Employee Engagement”. It’s a trending term that marketers, HR and all forms of management are using — and probably feels more overplayed than Carly Rae Jepsen’s ‘Call Me Maybe’. You’d be hard pressed to find someone who hasn’t heard of the term.

But just because it’s being overused doesn’t mean it it’s invalid. Its relevance to the success of a company and its employees can not be overstated.

Engagement is critical. It’s one of the key components you should look for in your next opportunity.

It’s about engagement

It’s important to differentiate between genuine, thoughtful “buy-in” and the concept of “drinking the Kool-Aid”. True buy-in is the seed of personal investment and the foundation of engagement , rather than just regurgitating values.

To stretch the music metaphor, you don’t want a company full of people who can lip sync; you want to be around people who understand, believe in and love the lyrics. Even if it IS ‘Call Me Maybe’.

Gallup has done a lot of research around this topic as part of their extensive Q12 Employee Engagement Assessments.

Their conclusion is simple: employee engagement drives growth.

After analyzing tens of thousands of work units at hundreds of companies, their research showed that employee engagement had a profound effect on key company performance outcomes like profitability, customer ratings and product quality.

The research even showed that

“companies with engaged workforces have higher earnings per share (EPS), and they seem to have recovered from the recession at a faster rate.”

These findings are echoed in a paper published by McKinsey & Company called, The Lean Management Enterprise. As written in the chapter “The Aligned Organization”,

“One study found, for example, that when people understand and are excited about the direction their company is taking, the company’s earnings margin is twice as likely to be above the median.”

It's rooted in the "Why"

There are a lot of elements that feed employee engagement, but one of the most central factors is a connection to and support for the company’s “Why”.

Further Gallup research found that an effectively communicated and widely embraced mission was a key driver of organizational performance — mainly because of its glaringly positive impact on five things:

  • employee loyalty
  • customer engagement
  • strategic alignment
  • clarity of purpose
  • measurability of engagement

While mission buy-in is an excellent indication of a company’s general attitude and its future — both of which will have a profound impact on your career — it’s also a view into the quality of leadership.

It starts with leadership

Again from the Gallup studies,

“…leaders bear the responsibility of instilling passion for the company’s mission…companies must do more than evaluate employees’ engagement and their connection to their workplace’s mission; they must assess whether people in management roles have the skills, knowledge, and talent to manage to mission.”

That’s not to say that everyone is always going to be gung-ho about the mission or why. It’s entirely possible that if you hear employees brushing aside their company mission, you’re interacting with someone who’s on the way out or someone who’s in it for the wrong reasons. They also might not appreciate or be motivated by initiatives that aren’t entirely their own.

But if there’s commonality of a nonchalant attitude, it’s more likely a sign of a bigger problem.

Maybe they don’t actually know what their Why is? Maybe there isn’t a clear and unified vision? Maybe no one cares? Maybe the company is truly trying to fit a square product into a round market?

And chances are, if this type of attitude is unanimous among multiple employees what you’re really experiencing is a red flag — where the leadership in the organization, either managerial or executive, might be coming up short in their responsibility to inspire and rally the troops at both the level of corporate strategy and individual contribution.

It could be a result of exaggerated hierarchy. It could be poor communication protocols. Or simply the absence of skill and appreciation for ongoing, non-invasive involvement. Whatever it is, it’s a sign that the leadership in an organization, or lack thereof, will likely be a bottleneck for your personal growth. Be wary of this one.

It's about uncovering alignment issues — which is all about asking the right questions:

As red flags go, this one is easier than most to pick out. It’s all about asking people the right questions and evaluating the perspectives driving the answers.

  • “What’s the mission of the company? What’s the core problem that you’re trying to solve?”
  • “Why are you excited about working here?”
  • “What do you think you are paid to do?”
  • “What do the Executives expect from you?”
  • “What do you think is really going to take this company to the next level?”
  • “Who are your biggest competitors and what advantage do you have over them?”

How do people answer those questions? Enthusiastically? Critically? Differently? Unanimously? You should hear a common thread embellished with personal perspective and pride.

Ask everyone questions that force them to put on a hat bearing the company logo and not just their personal brand. If that hat doesn’t seem to fit on a lot of people in the organization, it probably won’t look very good on you either.

Written by

Cahill Puil

Cahill Puil

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