How to Build a Happy Sandpit
Colin Browne, a British-born South African, comes from a large Irish family spread all over the world. Though he regards himself as having a world-view, he considers himself to be typically South African in the way he thinks, and in particular how he approaches problems. South Africa is where he chooses to do his work, as he believes this country offers the greatest potential for exploration in his area of expertise: organisational culture needed.
He has been a business journalist of sorts for the past 18 years, a career that began when he moved to Dubai in the mid-90s during the rise of the young ‘.com entrepreneurs’. The era was characterised by undue optimism which was evident even at the time, and resulted in the now-famous bust in which many of those ephemeral business ideas rapidly died. One observation Browne made during that era was how the survivors were almost all organizations in which the venture capital involvement had come with a rider that a more experienced businessperson must take the helm while the business went through its growing pains.
He established a media company with two partners on his return to South Africa; a venture that exposed him to some of the ideas that inform all that he is engaged in now. Currently focused on writing, Browne describes the process as one of extreme isolation, especially following the long period of interview research that preceded the writing phase of his upcoming book How to Build a Happy Sandpit. He
says he’s motivated by his ability to create a brilliant future for his three-year-old daughter; a massive, but rewarding, responsibility. Browne’s a realist/optimist. He views the world as a place of great opportunity but says that opportunity always comes at a price. That price is that you must be willing to accept often uncomfortable change.
His book, How to Build a Happy Sandpit, was inspired by a very poor hiring decision in which a terrible culture fit was hired into his business and went on to create a toxic environment which took considerable effort to resolve. Personal responsibility and accountability are major drivers of his, however, and he accepts that, he and his partners were responsible for hiring her in the first place. It was after all a choice. Admittedly her résumé ticked all the right boxes, but it did not correlate with her character and that led Browne on an exploration of culture building that he could apply as a more effective filtering process in the future.
He began to research organisational culture by interviewing 60 South African business leaders and ultimately decided the research would make for an exciting business book.
The title of the book comes from a simple analogy that is used to illustrate a big concept: employees in a company are like children in a sandpit. When you have the right children in the sandpit, they will play well together – building elaborate sandcastles, and having such a good time doing it that they will want to repeat the activity the next day. This leaves you, the adult, to sit at the adults’ table and enjoy adult conversation. You supervise the sandpit, but you don’t involve yourself minute by minute. But, if you throw one child in there who doesn’t want to ‘play nice’, someone starts crying and you’re away from the adults’ table and back to managing the sandpit.
It started out as a means of helping early-stage entrepreneurs fall back in love with the businesses they started, but has evolved as a focus on the hiring and retention practices of all businesses.
The key to an effective organisational culture is having the right people. Browne says that if you have the right team you can achieve big things, even with limited cash. Without the right people however, no amount of money is likely to be helpful. If organisations get hiring right, they can avoid the pitfalls of office politics and poor motivation.
As an individual who seeks to motivate and help others build their organisations through his experiences, Browne says he isn’t motivated by any particular person so much as he has great respect generally for anyone who is willing to rationally see both sides of any specific viewpoint. He sees the country’s challenges as primarily ones of poverty and unemployment and their resultant effect on human dignity.
How to Build a Happy Sandpit will be launched in November 2013, and the launch will feature a panel discussion by some of the CEOs Browne worked with in writing the book. Through this, he hopes to have a significant impact on the way in which we understand and develop business in South Africa.
Organisational culture is a complex matter, but, at the broadest level it is a manifestation of the CEO’s personality. If the CEO is open, communicative and empowering for example, there is a better chance the organisation will be. It’s intriguing that the nature of an organisation is often reflected in the ease with which outsiders can get hold of the CEO.
Browne has a significantly enhanced respect for many of the CEOs he has met through the interview process and a substantial amount more understanding of the pressures that are faced at the highest level to establish the building blocks of culture. Their personalities and their sense of adventure speak volumes about the nature of the organisational culture that they ultimately have built