Cultural Mojo

Tara Hunt mentioned on her Citizen Agency site the other day that she was in the middle of reading Small Giants which is a book about "companies that choose to be great instead of big". Interested in what Tara had to say, I decided to pop over to the Small Giants book website today and…

Tara Hunt mentioned on her Citizen Agency site the other day that she was in the middle of reading Small Giants which is a book about "companies that choose to be great instead of big". Interested in what Tara had to say, I decided to pop over to the Small Giants book website today and read some of the excerpts from the book. When I did, I immediately got excited when reading the following quote in the Introduction of the book that talks about an indescribable quality that these companies have that was sometimes referred to as its "soul" or "mojo".

I had the same reaction to all the companies on my list that Reese had to CitiStorage. There was a quality they exuded that was real and recognizable but also frustratingly difficult to define. I could sense it as I walked around the business. I could see it in the contents of the bulletin boards and on the faces of the people. I could hear it in their voices. I could feel it in the way they interacted with one another, with customers, and with total strangers. But I found the "it" awfully hard to put my finger on.

There is so much said in this one paragraph that I almost wanted to laugh out loud when I read it because it finally feels good to not be alone in being aware of this "feeling". Up until I became aware of what this quality was, I only had my intuition to rely upon. I just had to trust it and know that I wanted to work in a company that had "it" and didn’t in those without "it".

But what was "it"? Danny Meyer of Union Square Hospitality Group talked about businesses having soul. He believed soul was what made a business great, or even worth doing at all. "A business without soul is not something I’m interested in working at," he said.

It’s interesting to note Danny Meyer’s use of the word "soul". It’s also interesting to note how many people feel about large corporate organizations in the sense that they would often describe them as "soulless". 

The comment had stayed with Erickson following the trade show. Whatever mojo was, some smart people evidently thought that it was important, and that Clif Bar had it. In any case, it was something he needed to pay attention to. From then on, "mojo" became his watchword, and I could understand why. Having once had the honor of introducing the legendary blues man Muddy Waters at a concert—"I got my mojo working but it just won’t work on you"—I thought the word seemed just right for the mysterious quality I’d seen in Clif Bar, CitiStorage, Union Square Hospitality, and the other companies I’d looked at.

It was a quality that you could apparently lose by negligence. In his wonderfully engaging book, Raising the Bar, Erickson said he thought Clif Bar’s mojo was "something about the brand, product, and way of being in the world that was different. I realized that mojo was an elusive quality and needed to be tended carefully.” Hoping to sharpen his thinking, he’d given people at Clif Bar a homework assignment. After relating what had happened at the trade show, he had asked each of them to choose a company that had once had mojo and lost it, and then explain why they felt the company had had it and how they believed it had been lost.

It is most definitely a quality that can be lost. The web firm that I worked for previously in Vancouver had "it" when I started working for it. I even remember telling my boss one day that if I won the lottery, I would be coming in to work the next day and I was totally serious. I loved my job, the atmosphere, the "feeling" of "it". But then over time, as we grew bigger and more successful, it slowly disappeared until near the end it felt "soulless" just like any other large corporate environment I’d seen (even though we hadn’t really grown that large).

Of course, I’m talking about the company’s culture here or more appropriately the characteristics or values of the company’s culture as if you were describing them as the traits of a person. For example, when I first started working for this web firm, we all worked in the same large room. This gave a feeling of being "open", "sharing", and "caring" because everyone was aware of what everyone else was doing and was close at hand to quickly help out if need be. Near the end though, when success had taken hold of the company and certain key company figures had their own offices (which shut people out and created walls in the company), this created the exact opposite feeling. Trust is obviously one other trait that changed. In the beginning, you trusted management and believed that they cared about you. Near the end, distrust was all that was left. Of course, the Clif Bar company employees noticed this as well when they tried to describe what companies lost when they lost their "mojo".

The assignment had evidently struck a chord with the employees, who turned in dozens of thoughtful responses. They wrote about companies losing their creativity as they grew. About losing the emotional connection with the consumer. About losing authenticity and compromising quality. About becoming “too commercial” and focusing excessively on reducing costs. About ignoring the relationship with the community and failing to retain the culture. About getting too big too fast.

Again look at the traits described above as though they were the traits of a person. Also note that the Clif Bar employees even spelled it out so much as to say that these companies were "failing to retain the culture" that they once had when they first started out. Again think about one of your best friends and right down their traits or the traits of your relationship with them (i.e. open, caring, sharing, trusting, etc). Wouldn’t you say these are the traits of a good relationship?

Now here’s my final question. Why should the business world be exempt from the rules of a good relationship? In my opinion it shouldn’t. And many of these companies, such as the ones described in Small Giants, probably realized this. They weren’t focused so much on getting customers and selling products, as they were in helping people and building relationships (i.e. being caring, connected, etc). Of course I won’t know for sure until I read the book but the six common threads that each of these companies had within them, as described at the end of the Introduction, pretty much gives me a good indication that I’m pretty close on the mark. Basically these companies didn’t want to lose the traits that had made them so successful. They didn’t want to become something else because that "something else" just felt indescribably "wrong" to them deep down inside.

Oh and one final point. I’ve spoken before about tangibles and intangibles. This "indescribable quality" of culture is a perfect example of an intangible within a company that is just as critical to a companies success and sustainability as the tangibles it has (that being the skill and knowledge of employees). I’ll also hazard a guess as to say that in the future, we’ll see more and more companies, especially larger ones, hiring Cultural Consultants to help them regain this cultural "mojo" and then even hiring a Chief Cultural Officer afterwards to ensure it is maintained.

By Nollind Whachell

Questing to translate Joseph Campbell's Hero’s Journey into The Player’s Handbook for the roleplaying game called Life, thus making vertical (leadership) development an accessible, epic framework for everyone.