Do you work for a zombie company?

zombieA company with a clear mission has a soul. The soul motivates workers to contribute in positive ways to a shared goal. What do you call a company that has no soul? A zombie company.

A zombie keeps moving forward but exercises no judgment. A zombie company has financial incentives where the soul should be. People do things because it will help their careers, not because they feel like they are part of something.

Southwest Airlines has a soul — here’s its mission:

The mission of Southwest Airlines is dedication to the highest quality of Customer Service delivered with a sense of warmth, friendliness, individual pride, and Company Spirit.

If you’ve ever flown Southwest, you can believe this. On the other hand, American Airlines has no soul, and no visible mission statement. Individual American Airlines staffer may do good or even great work, but the organization does not motivate them to behave as part of something larger.

Here’s a comparison of the two types of companies:

Companies with a soul Zombie companies
Mission statement is clear, believable, customer-focused, and rarely changes. Mission statement is missing, unclear, or financial, and changes from year to year.
Employee motivation is primarily intrinsic. Employee motivation is primarily financial.
People feel they are part of something bigger. People feel they part of a team or department.
People innovate in ways that contribute to the mission. People innovate in ways that their manager expects.
Managers spend time clarifying and inspiring staff. Managers spend time managing staff to keep people in line.
Majority of growth comes from attracting new customers and growing customer relationships. Majority of growth comes from acquisition, customer lock-in, or monopolistic practices (e.g. patents or exclusive relationships).

This is a massive generalization. Zombie companies have pockets of inspiration, and companies with a soul have pockets of deadness. But there is value in this concept. When I debuted it recently at a social media breakfast event in Boston, people immediately believed it and wanted to know more. Here’s what it means to you:

I’m managing in a growing organization. How can I make sure it has a soul? Expend some time and work on culture, and renew that work regularly. Communicate your mission clearly internally and externally. HubSpot spent over 200 hours creating a mission deck to keep the company’s culture on track.

I work in a zombie company. What should I do? You can still do good work in a zombie company. Build meaning at team or department level. Be vigilant for changes in direction at the top. Be wary of ambitious, self-interested managers and employees cutting corners for financial goals. Look out for bullshit, which rushes in to fill the space where the soul should be. And continue in the job as long as you can advance, but if you get a chance to move to a promising position in a company with a soul, take it.

My company has lost its soul. Can it get it back? It’s very difficult, especially if management is constantly moving. I worry about Yahoo, which once had a soul but has floundered for years; Marissa Mayer is searching for that soul every day. Companies seem to get their souls back when one of two things happens: 1) the founder returns (like Michael Dell at Dell) or 2) the soul rises from some department or product that gets everyone excited again. Neither is guaranteed.

Does Walmart have a soul? Yes. Walmart’s mission is “We save people money so they can live better.” I have worked with Walmart, and their commitment to doing everything at the lowest possible cost is real, tangible, and central — every employee feels it. Having a soul does not mean making all the employees happy. The souls of companies, like those of people, have both good and bad sides. But it’s far better to have a soul than to lack one.

Photo: Daniel Hollister via Flickr.

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