Igniting the corporate campfire

Igniting the corporate campfire

campfire_RVWithTito.comLast time, I outlined my concept of a culture or a community as a collection of individuals who share their rituals and stories of collective identity. In extraordinary cultures, participants tell these types of tales over and over. Anecdotes that encapsulate who we are, what we stand for, and why we do things the way we do become part of the group’s tribal lore. It is in these stories that individual members find meaning and purpose.

As we have discussed previously on this blog, it is a rare start-up company that thinks early in its life about managing the people side of things. Most entrepreneurial ventures are so consumed by getting a product to market quickly or implementing a radical new idea that they tend to put the “what” before the “who”.

In other words, nearly all start-up ventures think first about the business concept, then about the people or the type of organization to build.

As such, one of my favorite start-up stories is that of Hewlett Packard. While the two founders were somewhat uncertain about what exactly their company should produce, they had clear ideas about the type of organization they would create. HP was a business that began with a culture plan.

In fact, notes from early meetings of the HP co-founders in 1937 contain a remarkable statement: “The question of what to manufacture was postponed.” To me, the most important document to come out of these initial planning sessions was a series of statements about how they would treat employees and build their enterprise. Some four decades before sociologists and business thinkers would coin the term “corporate culture”, Bill Hewlett and David Packard sat down and defined the five core principles that would become the HP Way.

In my public speaking and consulting about corporate culture, I often use illustrations from the first four decades of HP. Though the examples may be somewhat dated, their principles are truly timeless.

Hewlett Packard is the only story I know where the founders thought first about culture, then about strategy and products. To me, this is one of the primary reasons that Hewlett Packard would go on to became a great company. Because they focused first on how to treat their employees, and because their people policies were so enlightened, Hewlett and Packard planted the seeds of a storytelling organization that would feel as if it had its own tribal campfire.

It is in our stories that we demonstrate our values: While the five principles of the HP Way were eventually written in a formal document, ultimately the company’s culture, and employee behavior, came to be defined by the stories employees told. By way of example, one of the many famous anecdotes from Hewlett Packard’s early years is the story of the locked closet.

Legend would have it that co-founder David Packard once came across a supply cabinet door where someone had installed a padlock to guard against theft of material. Upon seeing this, Packard became incensed. He allegedly broke the security device and told the manager responsible that he never wanted to see any of the company’s property protected in this way.

It matters little that this tale, or at least some of its detail, may be apocryphal. (In fact, there are so many versions that it is difficult to say what exactly happened.) The underlying message about HP’s culture was entirely authentic, and consistent with the character of the two founders. Their goal from the start was to be a company of veritable openness and integrity. HP should be a place where we treat each other with confidence and respect. If we cannot trust employees with the corporation’s assets, it is a sad statement about who we are and where we are headed.

This tale demonstrates precisely why I maintain that it is our stories that express what our culture and values are. Far better than an employee manual, mission statement, list of  rules and guidelines, or any official declaration, the HP closet anecdote communicates the group’s values and beliefs. It tells us, “this is what we stand for, and how we strive to do things”.

In the best companies, one has the feeling that these stories of collective identity resonate throughout the enterprise, and that everyone is a custodian of the group’s culture. As Arsene Wenger says, ideally at Arsenal Football Club, it should be the responsibility of each player and each member of staff to take care of team spirit.

 Image: Flickr-user RVWithTito.com

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