Suppose you want to design the best company on earth to work for. What would it be like? For three years we’ve been investigating this question by asking hundreds of executives in surveys and in seminars all over the world to describe their ideal organization. This mission arose from our research into the relationship between authenticity and effective leadership. Simply put, people will not follow a leader they feel is inauthentic. But the executives we questioned made it clear that to be authentic, they needed to work for an authentic organization.
What did they mean? Many of their answers were highly specific, of course. But underlying the differences of circumstance, industry, and individual ambition we found six common imperatives. Together they describe an organization that operates at its fullest potential by allowing people to do their best work.
We call this “the organization of your dreams.” In a nutshell, it’s a company where individual differences are nurtured; information is not suppressed or spun; the company adds value to employees, rather than merely extracting it from them; the organization stands for something meaningful; the work itself is intrinsically rewarding; and there are no stupid rules.
The “Dream Company” Diagnostic
How close is your organization to the ideal? To find out, check off each statement that applies
These principles might all sound commonsensical. Who wouldn’t want to work in a place that follows them? Executives are certainly aware of the benefits, which many studies have confirmed. Take these two examples: Research from the Hay Group finds that highly engaged employees are, on average, 50% more likely to exceed expectations than the least-engaged workers.
Yet, few, if any, organizations possess all six virtues. Several of the attributes run counter to traditional practices and ingrained habits. Others are, frankly, complicated and can be costly to implement. Some conflict with one another. Almost all require leaders to carefully balance competing interests and to rethink how they allocate their time and attention.
So the company of your dreams remains largely aspirational. We offer our findings, therefore, as a challenge: an agenda for leaders and organizations that aim to create the most productive and rewarding working environment possible.
Let People Be Themselves
When companies try to accommodate differences, they too often confine themselves to traditional diversity categories—gender, race, age, ethnicity, and the like. These efforts are laudable, but the executives we interviewed were after something more subtle—differences in perspectives, habits of mind, and core assumptions.
The vice chancellor at one of the world’s leading universities, for instance, would walk around campus late at night to locate the research hot spots. A tough-minded physicist, he expected to find them in the science labs. But much to his surprise, he discovered them in all kinds of academic disciplines—ancient history, drama, the Spanish department.
The ideal organization makes explicit efforts to transcend the dominant currents in its culture.
Magnify People’s Strengths
The ideal company makes its best employees even better—and the least of them better than they ever thought they could be. In robust economies, when competition for talent is fierce, it’s easy to see that the benefits of developing existing staff outweigh the costs of finding new workers. But even then, companies grumble about losing their investment when people decamp for more-promising opportunities. In both good times and bad, managers are far more often rewarded for minimizing labor costs than for the longer-term goal of increasing workers’ effectiveness. Perhaps that explains why this aspiration, while so widely recognized and well understood, often remains unfulfilled.
Show How the Daily Work Makes Sense
Beyond shared meaning, the executives we’ve spoken to want something else. They seek to derive meaning from their daily activities.
This aspiration cannot be fulfilled in any comprehensive way through job enrichment add-on. It requires nothing less than a deliberate reconsideration of the tasks each person is performing. Do those duties make sense? Why are they what they are? Are they as engaging as they can be? This is a huge, complex undertaking.