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strategy and business
 / Fall 2004 / Issue 36(originally published by Booz & Company)


How Dell Got Soul

Typically, it takes a dramatic shock — an economic crisis, a scandal — to move an organization’s people to be reflective enough to address flaws in the corporate culture, or to strengthen positive attributes. Whatever the circumstances, striving to make deep changes in culture is a difficult and painful process.

Other scholars of organizational behavior share the Deal–Kennedy view. “It’s hard enough to train a dog, let alone a human being, let alone an organization, to behave in a certain way,” says James O’Toole, a research professor in the Center for Effective Organizations at the University of Southern California, himself an author of dozens of books on leadership and culture change. “It’s hard to do because you’re asking people to look at themselves and be able to accurately understand what they value and how they’re behaving. You can say, ‘We want the following 10 behaviors and we’re going to reward them.’ You can measure the extent to which people are doing that and reward them. But you can’t see the values, and the values are the hidden part of the culture that drives the behavior.”

Professor Kotter is likewise wary of the formulaic guides of countless culture change experts. “Almost all programs I’ve seen labeled ‘culture change’ have failed because you don’t change culture by going at it directly. You get people to change how they do things: behavior, practices, and organization. And if you succeed in finding a new way of operating, it kind of seeps into and becomes the new culture. It’s an indirect effect.”

Photograph by Vern Evans

Close Reading
The indirect culture change effect is often kicked off by an introspective and influential leader, such as Kevin Rollins.

After his consulting stint in the early 1990s, Mr. Rollins joined Dell full time in 1996 as senior vice president for strategy; he became its president in 2001, and this year he succeeded Mr. Dell as CEO. (Mr. Dell remains chairman.) The two have led the company virtually side by side, and continue to share an office space separated only by a famously always-open sliding glass partition.

Mr. Rollins was not a newcomer to the notion that companies are made or broken by their values. In 1997, he had even articulated the concept in a speech to employees, which he titled “The Soul of Dell.”

He says his journey as a change leader at Dell began, in part, through a close reading of certain books. He cites the work of Mr. Manville and Professor Ober as highly influential in his thinking, specifically their notion of employees as citizens in a meritocracy. He read a number of other management tomes as well, but says he was most inspired by a far different collection of books. It began with a reading of Joseph J. Ellis’s Founding Brothers: The Revolutionary Generation (Alfred A. Knopf, 2000), a highly personalized study of the intertwined lives of the founders of the American republic — John Adams, Aaron Burr, Benjamin Franklin, Alexander Hamilton, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and George Washington. Soon Mr. Rollins was devouring books about the Founding Fathers and the early days of the republic.

“I went on a journey to read every book about the Founding Fathers,” Mr. Rollins says. “I found that their whole mind-set of what they were thinking and doing to create the country fit with what I was thinking and wanted to do with Dell’s culture. It was very idealistic. These guys were very selfless, doing it out of a tremendous intellectual interest in doing what they felt had to be done. And they did it at great personal sacrifice. All of them could have been wealthy. They had a vision of creating something that had not been created before, better than anything before, and they believed it to their bones. I found that massively inspirational,” he says.

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  1. Gary Neilson, Bruce A. Pasternack, and Decio Mendes, “The Four Bases of Organizational DNA,” s+b, Winter 2003; Click here. 
  2. Terrence E. Deal and Allan A. Kennedy, Corporate Cultures: The Rites and Rituals of Corporate Life (Perseus, 1984)
  3. Terrence E. Deal and Allan A. Kennedy, The New Corporate Cultures: Revitalizing the Workplace after Downsizing, Mergers, and Reengineering (Perseus, 1999)
  4. Joseph J. Ellis, Founding Brothers: The Revolutionary Generation (Alfred A. Knopf, 2000)
  5. John P. Kotter and James L. Heskett, Corporate Culture and Performance (Free Press, 1992)
  6. Brook Manville and Josiah Ober, A Company of Citizens: What the World’s First Democracy Teaches Leaders about Creating Great Organizations (Harvard Business School Press, 2003)
  7. Edgar H. Schein, Organizational Culture and Leadership (Jossey-Bass, 1985)
  8. William E. Schneider, The Reengineering Alternative: A Plan for Making Your Current Culture Work (McGraw-Hill, 1994)
  9. Lynn Sharp Paine, Value Shift: Why Companies Must Merge Social and Financial Imperatives to Achieve Superior Performance (McGraw-Hill, 2003)
  10. AES’s values statement: Click here. 
  11. Johnson & Johnson’s values statement: Click here. 
  12. John Kotter: Click here. 
  13. Levi Strauss & Company’s values statement: Click here. 
  14. Edgar H. Schein: Click here.
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