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Cult-like cultures drive organizational success

/ 12:52 AM November 29, 2015

MANAGING organizations is about integrating people towards a common goal.  That is very much embedded in culture.

What managers do in the Americas, Europe and Asia are the same.  How they do it is not the same.  The challenge for managers is how to use their traditions, history and culture in transforming people of differing motivations into one cohesive organization.


Unifying goals

Over the years, successful organizations have a clear, compelling and unifying purpose.  Culture is about creating commitment in people, based on a common purpose.


Management guru Peter Drucker once wrote, “Every enterprise is composed of people with different skills and knowledge, doing different kinds of work.  For that reason, it must be built on communication and on individual responsibility.  Each member has to think through what he or she aims to accomplish – and make sure that associates know and understand that aim.  Each has to think through what he or she owes to others – and make sure that others understand and approve.  Each has to think through what is needed from others – and make sure that others know what is expected of them.”

Cult-like cultures

Jim Collins and Jerry Porras studied a number of visionary companies.  They conclude that many of these successful companies have developed cult-like cultures.  They warned, “The point … is not that you should set out to create a cult of personality.  That’s the last thing you do.  Rather, the point is to build an organization that fervently preserves its core ideology in specific, concrete ways.  The visionary companies translate their ideologies into tangible mechanisms aligned to send a consistent set of reinforcing signals.  They indoctrinate people, impose tightness of fit, and create a sense of belonging to something special…”

They added, “Cult-like cultures, which preserve the core, must be counterweighted with a huge dose of stimulating progress.  A cult-like culture can actually enhance a company’s ability to pursue Big Hairy Audacious Goals (BHAG), precisely because it creates that sense of being part of an elite organization that can accomplish just about anything.”

Obviously, Collins and Porras are not advocating a type of situation where you find the likes of Jim Jones, David Koresh, Charles Manson, or the Reverend Sun Myung Moon.  Cult-like cultures that drive organizational success are entirely different from many religious sects or social movements that revolve around a charismatic cult leader (“cult personality”).  Visionary companies are cult-like around their core ideologies.  Successful organizations don’t demand slavish reverence for an individual leader.  They shape “a powerful mythology about the customer service heroics of their employees” and create a “zealous and fanatical reverence for their core values.”

P&G’s tight fit

There’s a tight fit across Procter & Gamble, wherever it is located around the world.  An employee said, “P&G’s culture extends to all corners of the globe.  When going overseas, it was made very clear to me that I must first and foremost adapt to the P&G culture, and secondarily adapt to the national culture.  Belonging to P&G is like belonging to a nation unto itself.”


Procter’s employees talk the same language.  Wherever they are, the feel like talking to the same people – people they know, people they trust. Another employee tells of the company’s “secretive nature that reinforces an elitism cultivated throughout much of its history.”  Still another employee takes pride in “being the best.”

Collins and Porras notes, “P&G has always defined itself in terms of its own core ideology and deep heritage – constantly emphasizing its specialness and uniqueness.”

Disney magic

Like P&G, Disney “shrouds much of its inner workings in secrecy.” Outsiders never get to see the mechanics of the magic, or the training of characters at Disneyland.  One writer wrote, “Disney is a strangely closed corporation.  It has a level of controlling paranoia I had never encountered in my years of writing about American business.”

Disney tightly screens and intensively indoctrinates its employees.  It cultivates a “mythology and image as something special and important to the lives of children around the world, which help create a cultish following that extends even to its customers.”

Walt Disney likens his relationship with employees to that of father and children.  He “expected complete dedication and demanded unblemished loyalty to the company and its values.”  Disney was very particular with “grooming, recruiting and training processes, and exacting rules about integrity and sanctity of each Disney character.”

IBM’s indoctrination

Despite its size, IBM demonstrated great ability to adapt to a changing world, in the era that it displayed its strongest cult-like culture.

IBM creates a heroic mythology about employees that best exemplify its corporate ideology. Collins and Porras wrote, “IBM,  by the 1930’s,  had fully institutionalized its indoctrination process and created a full-fledged ‘schoolhouse’ that it used to socialize and train future officers of the company.”

CEO Thomas J. Watson, Jr. once wrote, “Everything about the school was meant to inspire loyalty, enthusiasm, and high ideals, which IBM held out as the way to achieve success.  The front door had IBM’s ubiquitous motto, ‘THINK’ written over it in two-foot high letters.  Just inside was a granite staircase that was supposed to put students in an aspiring frame of mind as they stepped up to the day’s classes.”

In a 1985 edition of ‘The 100 Best Companies to Work For’ IBM was described as a company that “has institutionalized its beliefs the way a church does …; the result is a company filled with ardent believers …; some have compared joining IBM with joining a religious order or going into the military …; if you understand the Marines, you understand IBM …; you must be willing to give up some of your individual identity to survive … ”

Nordstrom’s way

At Nordstrom, everybody starts at the bottom, just like the brothers Bruce, Jim and John who now make up the Chairman’s office.

Bruce Nordstrom and his brothers were raised sitting on a shoe sales stool in front of the customer.  He recalls, “You get a lot of operational freedom here; no one will be directing your every move, and you’re only limited by your ability to perform within the bounds of the Nordstrom way.  But if you’re not willing to do whatever it takes to make a customer happy – to personally deliver a suit to his hotel room, get down on your knees to fit a shoe, force yourself to smile when a customer is a real jerk – then you just don’t belong here, period.  Nobody tells you to be a customer service hero; it’s just sort of expected.”

The Nordstrom employee handbook that consists of one page – a 5×8 inch card – reads:

“Welcome to Nordstrom,

We’re glad to have you with our Company.  Our number one goal is to provide outstanding customer service.  Set both your personal and professional goals high.  We have great confidence in your ability to achieve them.

Nordstrom Rules:  Rule #1:  Use your good judgment in all situations.  There will be no additional rules.

Please feel free to ask your department manager, store manager or division general manager any question at any time.”

Nordies end up doing heroic customer service – ironing a newly bought shirt for a customer; cheerfully gift wrapping products bought by customers at Macy’s; or refunding money for a set of tire chains – although Nordstrom doesn’t sell tire chains.

To Collins and Porras, cult-like cultures mean “getting the right actors on stage, putting them in the right frame of mind, and giving them the freedom to ad lib as they see fit.”

(Ernie is the 2013 Executive Director and 1999 President of the People Management Association of the Philippines (PMAP); Chair of the AMCHAM Human Capital Committee; and Co-Chair of ECOP’s TWG on Labor and Social Policy Issues. He also chairs the Accreditation Council for the PMAP Society of Fellows in People Management. He is President and CEO of EC Business Solutions and Career Center. Contact him at

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