“It started from where it always starts, with Michael and Kevin,” says Mr. McKinnon. “At that original vice presidents’ meeting, they both got up and talked about their own 360s: ‘Here’s what I learned about myself.’ Michael, in particular, at that moment, said, ‘I’ve got some things to work on. I’m not done yet. I want to get better.’ That attitude of ‘We’re all working on something important here’ permeated everybody in that room.”
Particularly in a company that is still led by its founder, setting values by personal behavior is critical, says Richard Hagberg, a consulting psychologist and organizational consultant based in San Mateo, Calif. He says leadership and culture are flip sides of the same coin. As companies grow larger, they become less leadercentric in general. The exceptions are companies with larger-than-life founders. “There the shift needs to be toward a more values-oriented culture, so it’s not about the leader, it’s about the vision and the values,” says Dr. Hagberg.
At first glance, “The Soul of Dell” reads like a list of fairly standard corporate verities. But there are detailed commitments in each section that are company-specific and measurable. Improvement on each of these measures is a closely watched part of managers’ performance reviews, promotions, and compensation.
Mr. Dell says those measures were critical in making the aspirations articulated in “The Soul of Dell” into a reality. “We’re a very analytical, metrics-based, show-me-the-numbers kind of company,” he says. “This was soft, touchy-feely stuff, so we had to put measurements in place to monitor our progress against a series of actions.”
In performance reviews, Dell holds people accountable for acting according to the standards codified in “The Soul of Dell.” For instance, Dell management has made very explicit that half of employees’ ratings for the year is based on what they achieve financially — growing a business, hitting or beating sales targets — and half is based on how they do it, as revealed in the 360-degree appraisal. This year, says marketing chief Mr. George, managers had some “quite painful discussions with people who received the highest rating for meeting plan performance but got a low rating for the way they got there, which reduced their net score.” He also notes that some of this year’s Tell Dell scores for managers actually went down. “But that’s understandable; we’re changing and it’s stressful,” he says.
Such stress points to one of the challenges Dell continues to face: maintaining awareness of and responsiveness to the core values in “The Soul of Dell,” even as financial results improve.
“If you start with values, and you do everything Dell is doing — measure it, tie it to compensation, and so forth — the chances of cultural change taking hold and making a difference are pretty good,” says William Schneider, president of the Corporate Development Group, a Denver-based consultancy, and author of The Reengineering Alternative: A Plan for Making Your Current Culture Work (McGraw-Hill, 1994). “The key is to stay the course, and for leaders to consistently reinforce what they’re trying to do, so that everyone who works for the company is clear this is not a passing fad sold to senior management by a consultant. A lot of people look for quick results: ‘Are we done? Let’s hurry up.’ But values are perpetual — they never go away — and they need to be treated that way. Articulating the values is important, but after they’re articulated, it’s all about the long term.”
Although employees have been known to use it for venting frustrations over minor irritations, Tell Dell continues to be a powerful mechanism to keep the discussion about values going. Indeed, Mr. Rollins still sees Tell Dell as part of the enfranchisement process that Mr. Manville and Professor Ober identify in A Company of Citizens, in which employees take ownership of ethical and governance issues rather than waiting for leaders to act.