I’m old enough to know the impact of the book of Peters and Waterman: ‘In Search of Excellence’.  In 1982, when a lot of yoghurt hit the ‘economy-fan’ – inflation was 10%, interest rates were 14%, unemployment rates were written in double digits as well – the ideas on how to be an excellent company, were pretty radical.  They came up with eight characteristics that mark great companies. To name a few: ‘Customers are Cool’, ‘People (employees) are Cool’, ‘Action is Cool’, ‘Entrepreneurship is Cool’ and ‘Cool companies are Value Driven’. They basically said that any idiot can come up with a strategy but that real success is a matter of Execution, with a capital E.

The secret of success is Executional Excellence. A pretty radical message in those days when faith in ‘Big is beautiful’, Strategy and planning & management, were the pillars our economy was built on. The idea of ‘People’ being the crucial factor for success was too far fetched for most of the big corporates and major business schools did not teach ‘humanistics’.

A lot has changed since those days. The message of Peters and Waterman is now part of our daily routine, or at least, we know it should be. Love your customer, love your co-worker, make room for action, try new ideas, create a culture based on values: If we want to excel in organizational effectiveness and thus Execution, we, above all, have to focus on People. This is something we all know now and if you want more proof, read Laszlo Bock’s ‘Work Rules’. What this VP for ‘People Operations’ explains is that ‘People’ is the secret of Google’s success. And with ‘People’ comes ‘Culture, Values, Ownership, Politics, Freedom’. Please notice that all of these factors are ‘soft, invisible, intangible’ and thus hard to put in management models. We believe however, that this ‘human factor’ is the key to organizational success.

10 years ago, Dave Heilbron (co-founder of Lens,) and myself have founded Lens, Executive Search, our executive search boutique firm. Since, we are trying to live our faith in People. We believe that what we do for organizations is the most important thing we can do. Our work matters. Creating talent pools ‘to die for’ is what we aim for. In those ten years however we have had to find out for ourselves what all of the above means for us as Lens, Executive Search. Have we made ‘People’ our top priority? Are we successful in creating a culture in which the people we work with can thrive, take responsibility and, as a consequence, ‘fly to the moon’?

To answer this question, we can say that ‘It’s complicated’. This title of a slightly boring movie in which Meryl Streep finds love, in a complicated way of course, describes our quest towards a thriving culture.  Starting ten years ago we had two offices, one in The Netherlands and one in Switzerland: Time was on our hand and we grew quickly. In 2010 the global economic crisis hit us hard and we had to let go of the office in Switzerland and the majority of our people in The Netherlands. In further response, we totally ‘flexed’ our business: Flexible office space (in Spaces, very hip and happening), flexible car arrangements and also flexible people arrangements. No more fixed costs for us! It took us another four years to find out that ‘flexible people arrangements’ sounds like a good idea but it just does not work in a setting where you want to be of added value to your customer through your people. We have found out the hard way that it’s the quality of the relationship with your customer that differentiates you from the rest.

And in order to acquire a meaningful connection with the outside world you need to have your internal drivers in place: Are your values centred around ‘being of use’, focusing on ‘how to be your best’, applying rules of integrity and respecting principles of balance and ecology. Living your values is key in our approach to business and, although ‘It’s complicated’, we are making progress by facing the issues that come with it and are dealing with ‘the complications’.

The above attitude makes us ready for the next ten years and I’m convinced that we will have changed again by that time and probably sooner. Curious to know what I’ll be writing then!

The original post has appeared on the homepage of Lens, Executive Search/ Kennedy The Netherlands.