Fourteen years ago, when we started Caspian, we focused on all the things that any early stage business would focus on - getting our business off the ground, pitching to investors, putting a team in place, getting our basic processes and controls in place. There isn't time for much else. But we did make the time to think about something else that was important to us – this was not about what the company would do but how we would do it, what was the kind of organization we wanted to build.
Our core principle was simple - that being small did not mean we could not be world class. Scale is not a pre-requisite for excellence. We wanted to be an excellent organization. So we worked hard to embed this into the organizational fabric from the very beginning.
But what does "organizational excellence" mean? In its detail, it probably means different things to different organizations depending on their mission and objectives. To us at Caspian, being in the business of providing debt and equity capital to socially/environmentally impactful enterprises, the pursuit of excellence means:
That we are the preferred partner of our investees not only because of the capital we provide but because we invest the time to understand their businesses, and are thus able to effectively address the entrepreneurs’ unique needs and constraints.
That on our path to scale and profitability, we undertake breakthrough initiatives, because working with entrepreneurs who are trying to solve difficult problems means we need to be innovative in the solutions we offer them.
That our investees' experience with us is one of value addition, transparency, timely and clear communication and efficient turnarounds.
That we are able to offer our people an open and engaging work environment where individuals have the opportunity to tap into their interests and strengths even as they work in teams, and where everyone is respected.
That we always keep our promises - to investors, clients as well as employees.
That quality is non-negotiable and quality control, a priority function.
The pursuit of excellence is a lifelong commitment for any organization; one cannot claim victory and move on. At Caspian, we work hard each day on the goals I have listed above. The plan for each is an evolving one. But in order for us to do any of this successfully, we need a certain enabling environment within the company that fosters our collective pursuit of these goals. Here, then, are some of the things that help us reinforce our "excellence goals".
1. Purpose: A shared purpose and a pride in that purpose can bring people together and help them achieve extraordinary things. What we all do for a living at Caspian goes beyond the bottom line and maximizing shareholder wealth. Our clear commitment to non-financial impact helps attract not only like-minded investors but also talented individuals to the team. When professionals today, especially millennial's, think about their careers and the work they want to do, they increasingly value organizations that offer them a chance to engage in a larger social purpose. It's quite simple really - we tend to work harder and do better at something that we truly care about.
2. Contribution: In a recent satisfaction survey we conducted, 100% of our employees said they understand how their work impacts the organization's goals. This connection or impact is important for the organization to communicate and for the employee to be aware of.
3.Communication: Employees should know at the outset, the organization's expectations of them and the culture that they will be a part of. At Caspian all new employees receive on their first day, our core principles on "Who is a good Caspian team member?" These principles describe the kind of person that we believe will thrive in the organization. To summarize at least a few key characteristics here, this would be someone who takes responsibility for his/her actions, is keen to implement long term improvements in systems and processes in order to deliver better value to all stakeholders, is open to learn new skills, does not over-promise, does not vary the quality of work based on the recipient, is meticulous and disciplined, feels empowered to raise issues or problems and also commits to finding and implementing solutions together and is not casual about things that are important. Not everyone we hire may fit in to this construct. And it is better to know this sooner rather than later.
4. Role models: To be taken seriously by the team, the pursuit of excellence needs to be demonstrated on an ongoing basis by the leadership team. A strict hierarchy and top-down control structure where communication is restricted is not conducive to this. Ample interaction between leadership and the broader team will yield multiple opportunities for the team to observe first hand if their leaders actually do what they say.
5. Collaboration: Collaboration means that we effectively leverage the strengths of each person on the team. It is collective effort that leads to success. This is not to say that individual performance is disregarded, it is not. But incentives are linked to the performance of the unit/company as a whole in addition to the quality of one's work and the ability to work well within (and add value to) the team. There are no individual hard targets.
6. Organizational Excellence not Individual perfection: An obsession with individual perfection is doomed to fail and is not healthy. And it detracts from the much more desirable and collaborative goal of organizational excellence.
7. Appraisal and Feedback: Employee appraisal systems are gradually changing across the corporate spectrum. Employers are catching on to the fact that ranking people once (or twice) a year based on targets set at the start of the period, or worse still, fitting people on the dreaded bell curve does not necessarily lead to better performance. At Caspian, we have adopted changes that make the feedback and appraisal process more dynamic and ongoing. Regular check-ins with one's supervisor and a monthly performance snapshot help provide feedback on a more real time basis and offer a realistic chance for the individual to improve/change course.
8. Resources: It is important that the team has the appropriate tools and resources so that we can reasonably expect them to deliver on our ambitious goals. This is an ongoing effort and the onus is as much on the employees to articulate what is holding them back. It is not helpful to say "I cannot do X". What helps is when you say "I can do X but in order to do this well and on time, I need Y and Z".
9. Learning: We are working hard at Caspian to inculcate a love of learning among the team and to actively facilitate this. The knowledge or new skill we choose to pick up may not always be immediately relevant to our current role; this might even be the best kind (learning for the love of learning). Any form of learning, though, will inform our views, improve our perspective, will certainly make us more interesting people (!) and will help us bring something unique to the table.
Every organization wants to be successful, obviously. We may each define success differently, some by scale or market share, some by profitability, some by impact achieved. But to be successful and excellent? Isn’t that a much more meaningful ambition? It is for each organization to figure out what Excellence means to them and whether (and what) they are willing to invest in making this happen.