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Being Cool Isn't a Sacrifice

April 1, 1998
Related Topics: Corporate Culture, Featured Article
Cool is an AND, not an EITHER/OR. That’s what I concluded, anyway, after I first read Shari Caudron’s cover story on being cool. Shari observed that some companies are known to be cool, and that they are more appealing to top talent than those companies that aren’t. She set out to learn what makes those companies cool and what the implications are for HR.

What she found is that cool, in a business context, is a concept that reflects six separate components: respect for work/life balance, a sense of purpose, diversity, integrity, participatory management and a learning environment. She cites many examples of how these elements contribute to cool, and she makes it clear that any organization—regardless of size, industry or location—can attain them.

Jerry Hirshberg, president of Nissan Design International Inc., best articulates what links these seemingly disparate ideas. "Nothing about cool is conforming," he says. "Cool respects the individual."

That’s where the AND comes in. There’s nothing new about EITHER/OR vs. AND, of course. But writers James C. Collins and Jerry I. Porras explore the concept to provocative effect in their book, "Built to Last." The book is the result of years of research and summarizes the qualities that the authors contend separate companies that succeed over the long haul from those that don’t.

Collins and Porras argue that chief among these qualities is rejecting the "Tyranny of the OR" (which pushes people to believe things must be either A or B, as in change OR stability) and instead embracing the "Genius of the AND" (which is the ability to embrace two extremes at the same time, as in a relatively fixed core ideology AND vigorous change and movement).

It’s easy to see how this dynamic applies to cool. For a long time, Corporate America operated under the assumption that meeting common business goals was best served through conformity. The Organization Man in his gray flannel suit is the icon of this sort of thinking.

More recently, we’ve gone through a period of celebrating individuality. Decorated T-shirts, personalized license plates and do-your-own-thing fashion are some symbols of people’s desire to be seen as distinct from the crowd. At work, the move away from conformity has taken many forms, among them diversity programs, individual career development, personalized 401(k) investments and more.

Both perspectives were nurtured as people succumbed to the "Tyranny of the OR." You can almost hear the thinking: "We can focus on the group OR on individuals" or "We can be ourselves OR we can work toward a common goal."

Increasingly, however, organizations are learning that it’s possible—even desirable—to embrace employees’ individuality and to work toward common goals. Those that do it best are the companies perceived as cool.

Seeing the "Genius of the AND" may be the natural outgrowth of the sea of changes in the workplace, such as increased focus on results and a growing reliance on analysis, creativity and individual thought. Whatever has contributed to the change, it turns out that those companies in which employees focus on common values and also feel free to be themselves are more successful at attracting and retaining top people, and they grow much faster than the average. Now that’s cool.

Workforce, April 1998, Vol. 77, No. 4, p. 4.

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