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In 1928 a young cartoonist and visionary, Walt Disney, came up with a seemingly ordinary idea that would revolutionize generations to come: Mickey Mouse.
Today, the beloved character is nearly 100 years old, and the Disney company grows stronger by the day. In an article for The Atlantic, Benjamin Schwarz writes that Disney “implanted his creations more profoundly and pervasively in the national psyche than has any other figure in the history of American popular culture.” Indeed, you’d be hard-pressed to find anyone who hasn’t been touched by the magic of his work.
It’s fair to say that as a founder and entrepreneur, Walt Disney is a great example of a leadership style that was built to last. He was skilled in creating a company with strong core values, and according to co-authors Hemant Taneja and Ken Chenault, it was this emphasis on vision and principles that enabled the company’s long-term growth. “Disney’s continuing success long after the passing of its iconic founder is a testament to the power of a system of leadership that endures over time,” they wrote.
Many founders worry about their businesses being successful. But few think about creating a system and culture that will outlast even their own eventual transition.
The key to the longevity of leadership structures is through a slow and steady climb.
Build a business that will outlast you
“Longevity in this business is about being able to reinvent yourself or invent the future.” – Satya Nadella, CEO of Microsoft
When you think of running a marathon, what jumps to mind?
As any leader knows, consistency is key. Taneja and Chenault write that, despite the impulse to grow monumentally fast, “pacing and perseverance are paramount.” That’s because being strategic when it comes to our business’s longevity is what creates long-term sustainability. In other words, a slow-burn approach is best.
When I started my company over 14 years ago, I knew I wanted to develop a seamless product with loyal users, and create a healthy culture for my employees. But what did this mean exactly? For me, it was learning and growing alongside my team — not spending all my time trying to reach the top of TechCrunch.
All these years later, I attribute our success to this focus on improvement over aggressive growth. And it’s resulted in a strong, productive culture, as well as an agile workflow.
Had I chosen to devote all my time to growing quickly, I’d be caught up in extinguishing fires and trying to meet every new challenge head-on rather than make a great product or cultivate a happy workplace. When the time comes, this is what I ultimately want to pass on — the ability to keep evolving and move beyond a “24/7 hustle” mindset.
Don’t jump the gun and hire fast
In an excerpt taken from his fascinating book Hit Refresh, Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella writes: “I don’t want to hear that someone is the smartest person in the room. I want to hear them take their intelligence and use it to develop deep shared understanding within teams and define a course of action.”
It comes down to this: Good hires elevate your whole company and, as Nadella points out, will continue to do so even after you’re gone. “The heart of my message: Changing the culture at Microsoft doesn’t depend on me, or even on the handful of top leaders I work most closely with,” he says. “It depends on everyone in the company.”
The Walt Disney Company, for example, has remained an innovative powerhouse because of its rigorous approach in prioritizing vision and values with every new hire. Taneja and Chenault noted that: “By committing to such training, Disney trusts every employee as a brand steward who can make decisions without onerous oversight.”
When you consider your next hire, think about lasting impact over immediate gains. How will their contributions affect your business’s longevity? While you may feel the pressure to hire the most skilled person this minute, hiring slowly enables you to build a team that will eventually emulate your core values once you’re gone.
So, hiring slowly is a good first step, but the next involves establishing deep cultural roots within your company. Many entrepreneurs might focus on charismatic leadership or on creating a product that disrupts, but they forget to give equal importance to the people who work for them. Or they often fall into the trap of creating a “surface-level” culture, where they espouse values without actually walking their talk.
While it’s easier to teach skills and harp on about community and respect, instilling a sense of trust and loyalty (all of which ensure long-term success) takes time and conscious effort. This means taking care of your team on a long-term basis, and listening closely. It’s about nurturing a happy work culture by connecting with and supporting your employees, building meaningful relationships, and creating flexible work policies that reflect these principles.
The bottom line: Don’t grow for the sake of growing. Take a stand and build something that will add to the world. This is the greatest secret to creating a business that lasts.
Nadella put it well: “One of the things that I’m fascinated about generally is the rise and fall of everything, from civilizations to families to companies,” he explained in an interview with The New York Times. “We all know the mortality of companies is less than human beings. There are very few examples of even 100-year old companies. For us to be a 100-year old company where people find deep meaning at work, that’s the quest.”