The Danger of I vs We When Building a Company

by on June 6, 2013 | posted in Entrepreneurship

RossBlogHeader_IvsWE

The habit I’ve most wanted to break in the early stages of having others work at Siege relates to problems with differentiating between “I vs We”. I vs we is the pronoun choice that says very little, but also says a whole lot.

The use of one versus the other can happen more than you think. On phone calls, when talking to others on the team, in conversations with friends. When you begin talking about the state of the company, it is no longer just you. It is a team. It is not your client. It is our client. It is not your decision, it is our decision. I am not doing the work. We are doing the work. I didn’t build this. We built this.

Selecting one pronoun over the other can show a great degree of selfishness, and also, potentially, your real standpoint on a subject. Do you see the company as an entity, or was it born to wear your face as its logo and be bounded to your legacy?

The answer is almost never the latter, but sometimes, company figureheads may project that in corporate communication, which is often a tell-tale sign of company weakness. Leaders should understand the power of team, and the weakness of individualism. Communicating individualism divides team,  and is a bad choice for any grammatical situation that would be better fit for “we”.

To offer an example of this at play, we can point to recent corporate communication from Cheezeburger CEO Ben Huh. Unfortunately, Cheezeburger recently had to lay off 35% of staff, pointing towards a need to “transition to mobile”, where its users are supposedly going.

On Geekwire, Huh talked about the difficult transition:

“I want to build a long-term business. I am not here to pump up the numbers, and sell it next year,” Huh said. “This is really hard for everybody and we are letting go of some really good people, but at the end of the day I need to do what is right for the business, and if that means cutting back now to take advantage of the mobile world, I will do it now.”

To me, the phrasing of this statement is extremely telling. While Huh carries the “we” Cheezeburger mantra nicely in the official public statement, when Huh is asked directly by a Geekwire representative about the statement in the article, the pronoun turns to “I”. This reveals a more authentic statement of intent.

It should be noted that there is no implication here in reference to Huh’s ability as a leader or how it relates to their layoffs, but I think there’s something interesting (and correlative) to be gleaned from a company that is seemingly falling apart that also has a leader focused on “I” at its helm.

Good to Great

In the amazing book Good to Great, James Collins describes the main tenants of extremely successful companies, and what separates them from the merely good ones. Those traits, summarized on Amazon, are as follows:

  1. a series of CEOs (promoted from within) who combined “personal humility and professional will” focused on making a great company;
  2. an initial focus on eliminating weak people, adding top performing ones, and establishing a culture of top talent putting out extraordinary effort;
  3. then shifting attention to staring at and thinking unceasingly about the hardest facts about the company’s situation;
  4. using facts to develop a simple concept that is iteratively reconsidered to focus action on improving performance;
  5. establishing and maintaining a corporate culture of discipline built around commitments, with freedom about how to meet those promises;
  6. using technology to accelerate progress when it fits the company’s concept of what it wants to become; and
  7. the company builds momentum from consistent efforts behind its concept that are reinforced by success.

While traits 2-7 are worth thinking about another day, it is the first that speaks boldest, at least as it relates to this post. Personal humility. Not believing you are the company. Sharing credit with the people who deserve it. Referring to the entity as a whole rather than an individual.

These are the traits that lead to an extremely successful company.

It is this reality that leads to why I’ve been immediately concerned with the difficulty I’ve had breaking the “I versus We” habit in the early going of Siege Media. Thankfully, it’s not an old habit – but I hope it’s something that I – and people like me – can break sometime soon.

Previous post:

Next post: