Helping the Chronically Overworked Find Life Balance

Did Tom Peters Warn Us Of The Danger Of Corporate Idolatry?

Chapter 3: The Real American Idol, Part 13

In his article “What Is So Terrible About Idolatry?” Rabbi Tzvi Freeman connects a culture of idolatry to the dangers of hierarchy.  “[In the pagan world] Rulers found that a good mix of secret knowledge and convenient mythology could be an instrument of power over the populace; that by controlling the flow of knowledge they were able to hold the people in awe and obedience.”

Leadership guru Tom Peters also wrote of the dangers of hierarchy in his book In Search of Excellence. Peters found that the “Excellent” companies had strong central values brought the organization cohesion.  Peters rightly points out that people crave meaning in their lives, and a company that can provide its employees meaning will motivate them to work harder. (For more, see this post.)

But Peters also recognizes the danger and downside of this dynamic for individual employees.  “So strong is the need for meaning in fact that most people will yield a fair degree of latitude or freedom to institutions that give it to them.” He goes on to argue that the unscrupulous will use the drive for meaning as a means to exert power for its own sake.[i]

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not arguing that everyone in company management abuses their power and is only in it for the money.  And I’m also not arguing that everyone else is caught up in the company mystique. But at the same time, we cannot pretend that those dynamics don’t exist.

Learning to recognize the motivations of the people you work with will be covered in the next chapter in great detail.

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[i] In Search Of Excellence: Lessons From America’s Best-Run Companies.  Thomas J Peters and Robert H. Waterman Jr. Harper and Row (1982) p 77-78

When Do Shared Values Become a Competitive Advantage?

Chapter 3: The Real American Idol Part 8

In the last post, I used the McKinsey 7S model to explain the importance of shared company values to corporate culture.  Tom Peters’ book “In Search of Excellence” introduced the 7S model to the broader business community when it was first published in 1982.  Peters argues (as do many others) that strong company values give a competitive business advantage.  The top companies “create broad, uplifting, shared culture,” which allows them to  “ extract extraordinary contributions from very large numbers of people” because they share “ a sense of highly valued purpose.[i]”  In other words, when people really believe in what they are doing, they work harder.

This rings true for me.  People I interviewed felt that working in the Biotech industry is “motivating in itself” because of the direct connection to improving human health.  I was, however, surprised to learn that people in the computer industry find “solving customer problems” to be an analogous type of motivation.

When people described their best work experiences, often they pointed to a time when everyone in the company was aligned around a clear set of goals.  Notice the emotion-laden words as a research VP describes her best work experiences.

There were stages in my job where I loved my work.  I would get in early, I would stay late, I thoroughly enjoyed it.  I thought I was making a contribution and it all felt right to me.  I thought about what made it good.   I was really clear in my scientific heart we had strengths to address what we were going after.  What I knew as my training as a scientist, and the company had resources that really felt like we were aligned with the goals of the company.

Shared values have an additional benefit on the practical level – they facilitate decision making.  According to Peters, the Excellent companies did not need detailed procedures because “people way down the line know what they are supposed to do in most situations because the handful of guiding values is crystal clear.” In contrast, Peters sites the difficulty of making decisions at a large company put together by a series of mergers.  “The top people are inundated with trivia because there are no cultural norms.”  Underperforming companies like this can also have a strong culture, but the focus tends to be on politics or “the numbers,” rather than on people or products.[ii] Peters argues that these companies do not have strong values.  I disagree – there are strong values, but the values are pointed in a different direction.

What differentiates the values of the companies classified as Excellent when compared to the lower performing companies?  The Excellent companies put people first.

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[i] In Search Of Excellence: Lessons From America’s Best-Run Companies.  Thomas J Peters and Robert H. Waterman Jr. Harper and Row (1982) p. 51.

[ii] In Search Of Excellence: Lessons From America’s Best-Run Companies.  Thomas J Peters and Robert H. Waterman Jr. Harper and Row (1982) p. 76.

The Quick and Dirty Way To Learn Your Company Culture

Chapter 3: The Corporation, The Real American Idol Part 6

The writer David Foster opened his 2005 Kenyon Commencement address with this story: an older fish said to two younger fish “Morning boys.  How’s the water?”  After he swam away, one fish looked at the other and said “What the hell is water?[i]”  I love the story, because it captures a truism – we don’t notice something we are immersed in.  Corporate culture is the water of corporate life.

Corporate culture is defined as the shared values, traditions, customs, philosophy, and policies of a corporation.[ii]  We used to grill new employees about our products to get an outside perspective before they absorbed the biases of our organization.  And I think a big part of the stress of a new job is learning all of the unwritten rules of “the way things are done here.”  Here is a trick to learn the new culture quickly: ask to hear stories.

In their book “In Search of Excellence,” Tom Peters and Robert Waterman argue that great companies have strong values, which are transmitted not through “written procedures” but through “stories, myths, legends and metaphors.[iii]”  This rings true for me, based both on my own experience and from stories I heard while conducting interviews for the book.  For example, when I asked about company values, people started talking about the bullet points in the employee handbook, and were quick to point out that no one paid attention to them.  But when I asked for stories, I quickly learned what a company stood for.

At one company, there was a story about the sales rep who drove an instrument across Europe during the Christmas shutdown to complete the sale.  He even got the customer to unlock the building and take delivery so that the company could recognize the revenue.  This story was told more than once at company-wide meetings, and reminded employees an important lesson about the company values – do what it takes to make the numbers.  Of course the sales rep got a commission check, and it could be argued that he was simply acting in his own self-interest.

But self-interest certainly was not a factor in a story I heard from a former employee of Amersham.   a company in the UK that sold radioactive labels for biomedical research in the 80s and 90s. What does this story say about Amersham values? “Something went wrong with the [nuclear] reactor and the people on the night shift had to run into the reactor to get some stuff [so that it could ship to the customer on time.]  They got 10 times the dose they legally should have. … It wasn’t driven by commercial gain.  It was driven by ‘oh we’ve go to do a good job.’”  The Amersham alum laughed fondly as he told me the story.  It was clear that the story was told often when the beer began to flow, and is the type of myth that helps propagate company values.

What are the stories, myths and legends at your company, and how do they guide how you make decisions?

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[i] Transcription of the 2005 Kenyon Commencement Address – May 21, 2005 retrieved August 5, 2012.  http://web.archive.org/web/20080213082423/http://www.marginalia.org/dfw_kenyon_commencement.html; David Foster Wallace, The Guardian, Friday 19 September 2008 http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2008/sep/20/fiction retreived August 3, 2012

[ii] Dictionary.com

[iii] In Search Of Excellence: Lessons From America’s Best-Run Companies.  Thomas J Peters and Robert H. Waterman Jr. Harper and Row (1982) p. 282.