The 3 Keys to Building a Strong Organizational Culture

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "Built to Last" by Jim Collins and Jerry Porras. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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How do visionary companies create a strong organizational culture? How do they get everyone on the same page?

Companies that are built to last have a strong organizational culture. In fact, they exhibit some cult-like characteristics. They go all out to protect their core philosophy, so they insist that everyone on the team is compatible with their values and purpose.

Read more to learn how visionary companies foster a strong organizational culture.

Cultivating a Strong Organizational Culture

It’s a myth that anyone can fit right in at a visionary company. The truth is that some people don’t belong.

The Cult-Like Characteristics of Visionary Companies

People see visionary companies as dream workplaces and consider their biggest hurdle to be getting in the door. And while you likely have to go through stringent screening processes to land a spot in a visionary company, you might encounter an even bigger hurdle as you try to fit in. Contrary to the myth, a visionary company isn’t the best place to work for everyone; some people just don’t fit in. It’s either you’re in or you’re out—there’s no in between. This is because visionary companies want to preserve their core philosophy and thus make sure that everyone in the company is compatible with their ideals. To do this, they cultivate a strong organizational culture.

  • For example, in Disney’s culture, everyone has to embrace wholesomeness, adhering to a strict grooming code and sanitized language—Walt Disney was said to fire anyone who uttered a swear word in the presence of others. Such a strong organizational culture may seem extreme, but it helped preserve the company’s core philosophies after Walt’s death. 

The workplace culture of a visionary company can best be described as “cult-like.” The word “cult” may have negative connotations, especially when it refers to a cult of personality, or the radical devotion to an individual. But in visionary companies, workers don’t channel their devotion towards a rock-star leader; instead they channel it towards the company and what it stands for. 

While Collins and Porras stress that visionary companies aren’t cults, they did find that the companies consistently demonstrated three cult-like practices and characteristics to create a strong organizational culture and make sure that everyone is on the same page.

1) Alignment

Visionary companies have a tough screening process to ensure that new hires fit seamlessly into the organization. They reward behaviors that are compatible with the company’s core are rewarded, while those that aren’t compatible with the core are penalized. 

  • For example, Nordstrom rewards those who are aligned with the core philosophy of outstanding customer service. Exceptional “Nordies” are entitled to big store discounts, while those who are unpleasant towards customers get sent home for the day. 

Some strong organizational cultures include profit-sharing schemes that increase employees’ psychological commitment to the company.  

  • For example, P&G gave employees stock options to increase their psychological buy-in. Employees then see their hard work and success as intertwined with the company’s success. 

2) Indoctrination

Visionary companies immerse new employees in their strong organizational culture. They require newbies to attend orientation seminars that highlight the company’s history, values, and traditions. They hire young employees, molding them into future leaders of the organization. They expose employees to stellar examples of those who embody the company ideology. Some companies even have their own songs or cheers to bolster employees’ corporate fervor.

  • For example, at IBM, newbies learn about the corporate philosophy at the Management Development Center and sing hymns out of the Songs of the IBM songbook. Disney’s culture requires every new employee to take part in an orientation seminar called “Disney Traditions“ at Disney University. 

3) Exclusivity

Visionary companies want their employees to feel like they are part of a special, elite group. They encourage their workers to socialize among themselves and not with outsiders. They use insider-only language and fiercely guard company secrets and information.

  • For example, Disney’s culture includes a unique language, referring to employees as “cast members,” customers as “guests,” a work shift as a “performance,” and so on. These terms further the distinction between insiders and outsiders and make employees feel like they’re part of something special.

Anyone who doesn’t align with the corporate philosophy or strong organizational culture will either choose or be asked to leave. This doesn’t mean that there is a lack of diversity in visionary companies. Color, gender, size, shape—these things don’t matter, as long as you’re compatible with the core.

The 3 Keys to Building a Strong Organizational Culture

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Elizabeth Whitworth

Elizabeth has a lifelong love of books. She devours nonfiction, especially in the areas of history, theology, science, and philosophy. A switch to audio books has kindled her enjoyment of well-narrated fiction, particularly Victorian and early 20th-century works. She appreciates idea-driven books—and a classic murder mystery now and then. Elizabeth has a blog and is writing a creative nonfiction book about the beginning and the end of suffering.

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