Rediscovering the Corporate Soul

Certain organizations show passion, commitment and the ability to achieve sustained success. Their people are consistently excited by their work, intensely focused, and extremely energetic. Unfortunately, too many companies seem disorganized, unfocused and unproductive. Their people are overwhelmed, stressed and frustrated. What makes some companies positive and effective while others are negative and ineffective?

There are a number of conventional wisdoms about what makes a company great. But everything about positive companies is tightly grounded to a set of core beliefs that represent the essence of the company’s existence. Interestingly, upper management does not regularly articulate these core beliefs. Instead, these beliefs are simply “understood” and people are expected to behave consistently with them. We call these core beliefs the company’s “corporate soul.”

Why should you care about having a corporate soul? Simply put, corporate soulfulness correlates with long-term financial success. Research shows that soulful companies are more successful companies. Is this some kind of new wave business psychology? Hardly, but it is a new way to think about organizational performance. The dictionary defines soul as:

An entity which is regarded as being an immortal or spiritual part of the person and, though having no physical or material reality, is credited with the functions of thinking and willing, hence determining all behavior.

Based on this definition, can a corporation have a soul? Can this definition be applied to an organization rather than a person? The evidence overwhelmingly says, “Yes.” The top performers in these organizations always reference a profound mental model of their objectives, rather than the typical corporate statements, as the guiding force for their decisions and behaviors. Both findings suggest the existence of some powerful underlying foundation of success – in other words, a “soul.”

How to Tell When An Organization Has “Soul”

Perhaps the best indicator of the existence of a corporate soul is your own personal experience. Think about some recent experiences that you have had as a customer. Was there a recognizable difference that you could “feel” when you dealt with some companies? Have you ever had this feeling about a company as soon as you walked in the door that it was a really good company? Why did you feel this way? Conversely, have you ever visited another company recently and immediately perceived that it was a stressed, unhappy environment? If so, it is likely you sensed some characteristic in the people, the presentation, or something else that caused you to develop an immediate emotional response.

People seem to quickly sense, through largely emotional means, if a company is positive or negative at its core. Are these feelings a result of the company having or lacking a corporate soul? Admittedly, it is a leap from people having feelings and perceptions about a company, many of which could be explained by tangible factors such as the d├ęcor of the building, to the notion of a corporate soul. However, the overall

feelings created seem to be so much more than the sum of the parts.

Soulfulness Adherence to a set of success-based core beliefs

The organization has a consistent set of core beliefs that are at the root of everything they do. These core beliefs are positive and drive the organization to success.

o People actively demonstrate a consistent set of value driven behaviors.

o Everyone in the organization, at some profound personal level, shares the core beliefs.

o Language that is highly altruistic and about making life better for their customers is always used when people articulate the beliefs.

o Conversations center around how things can be done, rather than why they can’t be done.

o The organization actively listens to the emotional interpretation of the core beliefs as articulated by the top customer-contact personnel (primarily sales and service).

o There are leaders who are self-effacing, while being completely committed to the core beliefs. They are determined to ensure everyone else’s commitment

Constant and profound selflessness

Every person in the organization views himself or herself as part of a larger organization, and behaves in a highly selfless way towards the customers, their colleagues and the organization. These people seem to be part of the organization because they deeply care about others’ success, not their own.

o You always hear “we,” never “I” in conversations about the organization’s successes and failures.

o People never consider putting themselves before the good of the company.

o Every person believes they are making a significant contribution to the good of the company and others.

o Everyone believes that everyone else is completely committed to the good of the company so they trust others’ decision-making even if ultimately the decision is wrong. We call this the “rule of good intentions.”

A pervasive “culture of the sensible”

The organization tends to focus on quick, reasonable decisions and testing, avoiding extreme or slow responses.

o There is a balance between analysis and action, with a preference for action. We characterize this as a decision rule that states, “A reasonably good decision now is much better than a great decision too late.”

o The organization actively listens to the emotional interpretation of the core beliefs as articulated by the top performers who actively converse with customers (primarily sales and service).

o The organization, and each person in it, always tries to do the “right” thing

Keepers of the Corporate Soul

Who best exemplifies the corporate soul? Most textbooks, as well as many popular business books will tell you that it’s the chief executive officer or company founder. We’re not going to say that the CEO has no part to play in establishing the corporate soul. When a CEO acts in a soulful way, he/she has an impact on everyone else’s behavior. Conversely, it is difficult for an organization to overcome a completely soulless CEO.

However, the organization’s top performers have a disproportionate role in establishing and propagating the corporate soul. Their soulful behaviors can energize the organization even when the corporation itself

has few of the soulful indicators and many of the soulless indicators. Top performers tend to be soulful in spite of pressures to behave otherwise. In fact, the top performers in most companies seem to be the long-term keepers of the corporate soul.

Top performers’ soulful qualities are consistently visible in their mental models of goals and objectives. These models are deeply and passionately held, highly altruistic, completely selfless and the basis for all their decisions and behaviors. The top performers’ mental models are the operational manifestation of the corporate soul. For example, in one pharmacy chain, the top performers in the field organization thought of themselves as being a “critical part of the family emergency response system.” They saw themselves, and behaved, as though they were altruistically and selflessly helping others in times of need.

In sharp contrast, several groups at their corporate office, particularly a training group within Human Resources, saw the company’s primary focus as “selling prescriptions.” Just selling prescriptions is hardly a soulful view of the world and is in sharp contrast to the socially powerful perspective of helping families in distress. Similarly, in a manufacturing environment, the top performing engineers envisioned themselves as “treating each machine with respect for its sophistication and complexity.” Less effective engineers thought of their primary focus as “servicing machines when they broke down.” These two examples are indicative of the many companies that we’ve worked with.

The top performers embody the corporate soul of any organization. Part of what makes top performers so extraordinarily successful is that they define themselves in a way that enables them to meet each new pressure and redirection by continuously reconnecting themselves to a core set of beliefs. Thus, we have seen that top-performing managers of a large retail chain can quickly absorb changes to any of their departments because they always ground to the idea of “making life great for their customers.” The soul forms the basis of integration, which enables substantially greater productivity. Not surprisingly, the respect accorded these top performers in many organizations is almost akin to worship. People refer to the top performers with awe, saying such things as, “There goes Jim. He invented the …” or “I got to meet with Debbie. She knows so much about… [widgets]…that I was just amazed.”

Most people in the organization intuitively recognize and respond to the intangible, soulful qualities of the top performers. When someone in the organization positively, absolutely has to get something done, more often than not, they rely on the top performers because these people, in addition to their knowledge and experience, embody the “can do” attitude and altruistic nature required. In short, they have soul both for themselves and as representatives of their organizations.

In sum, there are certain organizations have an almost spiritual quality of faith in their goodness and individuals within the organization behave consistent with that faith. They embrace a holistic approach that is almost entirely positive in nature. They express themselves using positive language, even when things are not going as well as they would like. Even though they can only rarely articulate what makes them soulful, these organizations almost always act with soulfulness.