Blog Insight

The Enduring Legacy of Leadership and Company Values


Writing about what he calls “the founder’s dilemma,” professor and entrepreneur Noam Wasserman argues that founders face a straight-forward choice when getting into and growing their business: they must choose either power or money. The desire to maintain power and control often undermines the profit motive, since the skillsets required to expand are different than those required to create the offers on which the business was initially based.

As an employee, I find that good leadership is far more nuanced than an assessment of whether or how fast the company I work for is growing. Just as important—if not more so, day to day—is the quality of the environment, which is itself an expression of the values embodied by those in charge. Is it respectful? Is it supportive? Is it encouraging? If so, you often have a founder to thank. As, I’m happy to report, I certainly do.

Over the course of a founder’s tenure, they are often not only at the helm steering the ship, but down in the engine room, working tirelessly to ensure it doesn’t lose steam. Day after day, they’re the first one in and the last to leave. Granted, entrepreneurs don’t lack a profit motive. But their motivations aren’t so simple. A company is an expression of its founders’ mission, vision, and values. It’s not only a matter of what they want to create, but how they want to create it, and who they want to create it with.

From this perspective, employees—especially early hires—are not only part of the company, they’re part and parcel to the offer. They’re part of the founder’s vision in its original, “pure” state. Which is why, as a company grows, there can be a tacit dividing line between early employees and those brought in later: the first set can be treated like family, the second as headcount with the right skill sets.

Not all founders create a culture in which even the most recent hire is welcomed into the family. But when one does, the explanation is simple—if not easy to pull off. And it comes down to shared values. And this is how, despite permutations and evolutions of the product or service line, despite mergers or acquisitions, a company can stay true to its purpose. If it honors those values on which it was founded it can almost entirely reinvent itself and remain easily recognizable.

I’ve been thinking about corporate values because Rebecca Lyman, the founder of the company (The Garrigan Lyman Group) where I worked for over fifteen years, is moving on to her next adventure. And while in other circumstances this might be cause for concern, the way she has navigated the company through the last few years has been both thoughtful and strategic. Like steering a ship into safe harbor, she brokered our acquisition by a larger company (DCG ONE) that not only complemented our set of services but, perhaps just as crucially, shared the values on which she had built GLG.

All of which seems smart as heck on paper, but what it has meant in practice is even more impressive. Suddenly, GLG’s “early hires” were essentially new recruits, and had the culture at DCG ONE been less like that of GLG, this could have resulted in exactly the kind of division that stymies collaboration and undermines camaraderie.

This has been anything but the case. Which, of course, has everything to do with the leadership of Tammy Peniston and Brad Clarke, who saw as clearly as Rebecca how the two companies could so seamlessly converge. But it also speaks to Rebecca’s foresight, and the deep and presiding responsibility she felt for employees like me whose talent she had nurtured for so long.

Some founders—their names will go unmentioned—are taking up a lot of brain space these days. Always in the news. And not always for the right reasons. And it’s a shame not only for the toxic workplace cultures they tend to create. It’s a shame because the actions of a small, highly visible minority of business leaders often misrepresent the true nature of leadership. They encourage us all to identify leadership with power and ego when we might otherwise be associating it with sacrifice and support.

I feel fortunate to have worked for such a remarkable leader, and though Rebecca Lyman may no longer be at the helm, so long as her values are put into action every day she will continue to influence the work we do—and how we do it.

And don't miss the latest update on Rebecca Lyman featured in the Puget Sound Business Journal's 'People on the Move'.