What Level Are You On?

Most of my friends and colleagues know that I am a fan of the human motivation work done by Abraham Maslow and what he proposed were the key drivers for human behavior. His work is considered to be the seminal research on this topic. Simply stated, he created what has become known as the “Maslow Triangle of Human Behavior.” His premise is that there are layers of human need, from basic to advanced, and that lower level needs must be satisfied before higher level needs can be realized.

As I’ve thought about his work and its implications for our own business, I’ve often pictured a three-story building. The first floor of this building, representative of the base of Maslow’s triangle, is a business that is extremely sound financially, is populated with highly energized associates, and has cost advantages. In other words, it has a foundation that allows the business to survive a significant recession, or a 100-year storm equivalent.

This begs the question as to what is on the second floor. The second floor in this analogy is where all the heavy lifting of service and product improvement, customer focus, and, in general, the myriad of individual tactical programs related to their execution and continuous improvement take place day in and day out.

Jack Welch, the great ex-CEO of General Electric and, in my opinion, one of the greatest CEOs ever, was fond of saying that “it is simply a matter of being ten percent better every year in everything we do.” Quite a mouthful when you think about doing that year after year, but for many years GE did exactly that. At GE, this concept of continuous improvement was imbedded into their culture. The words “ten percent better every year” became a mantra, and indeed a business belief system that moved their organization from survival mode to excellence in everything.

When I came out of college and started my first job with IBM, I found a similar culture. It was clear by the signs and messages everywhere that their business was also about pursuing improvement. Their key cultural message that hung on signs across the business was simply the word, “THINK.” I recollect asking shortly after I joined, “What’s with the sign ‘THINK?’ ” I soon found out that it meant that each and every one of us IBMers had a role and a responsibility to innovate, even in the smallest way. Not surprisingly, they dominated their space for decades and enjoyed unparalleled success, and we all had a role, each and every day, in improving the business.

Several years ago I accepted an award for CAI from the Pennsylvania Ben Franklin Business Development organization, which is tasked with promoting successful new business startups in Pennsylvania that generate high-paying jobs. At our start we were a Ben Franklin-supported business. We received the award for being one of the most successful companies that began in the Ben Franklin incubator program. Quite a nice honor for all of us!

The focus of Ben Franklin is successful entrepreneurship. In receiving the award, I stated that, yes, CAI was an entrepreneurial business, but at our heart is a culture of individual entrepreneurship. Each CAIer is meant to think and operate as a business owner responsible for his or her business survival – constant 10% improvement in their knowledge and capabilities and work performance.

I have seen many companies without this type of culture, some that apply it somewhat, and a few that are totally committed to it and believe in it as their core. I am totally committed, personally and professionally, to doing what I can to encourage and support this ethic, not just at CAI but in the world at large.

The highest level of Maslow’s Triangle is self-actualization. To self-actualize, you must first be committed to your personal growth and development. But self-actualization is about more than just survival, and it is about more than continuous performance improvement. Self-actualization is about achieving and realizing our purpose in life.

And I can find no better criterion for success, either on an individual or an organizational level.

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