Creating a Cult: Making Your Organization Elite

Creating a Cult - Waldo

As part of our consulting services, ICS frequently helps clients with a wide range of staffing activities: We help recruit talent, lead and mentor staff, and sadly, even eliminate positions.

Along the way, we encounter several challenges:

  • With extremely tight expense budgets, how do we attract the very best talent?
  • With a new generation of employees who are more comfortable “multi-tasking,” how do we keep our top performers focused and motivated?
  • With the dynamic workforce, how do we retain our top talent?

In other words, “How do we attract, hire, motivate, and retain the best talent without breaking the bank?”

To answer this question, all we need to do is ask, “Who does this well and what can we learn from them?” A short list of companies quickly comes to mind: Google, Apple, Facebook, Disney, and a small set of other elite organizations. What do these organizations have in common?

  • People desperately want to work for these companies, so they don’t have to pay top-dollar
  • People kill themselves working 10, 12, 14+ hours a day, so the companies yield tremendous value out of their staff
  • People stay far longer out of loyalty, so the companies have low turnover expenses and are more efficient

How do they achieve this? The answer is quite brilliant: They transcend being an employer and become “cult-like” organizations. They master the art of exclusivity. For some, their “cult-like” attraction is so powerful that people literally tattoo themselves with company logos. Stop and think about that . . . out of brand loyalty, people will permanently alter their physical appearance.

These companies are truly remarkable and worth exploration. How can you take your organization, division, department, even team and achieve this “cult-like” status?


Step 1: Create Your Brand

Everybody has worked at a company where there’s that one team that everybody recognizes and desperately wants to be a part of. They have an aura about them that says, “only the best can join.” To achieve this, these teams do the following:

1. Define a single mission and small set of values that are deeply-rooted and aligned with the organization and the staff. For example, customer service at Nordstrom is not just presented as some fancy words on a wall, it’s their religion. Everyone at Nordstrom lives and breathes this mission; their self-value (and compensation) is evaluated on how well they embody and fulfill this mission.

2. Create an inspirational brand image:

a.) Create a logo – Think of a logo as an image that evokes an emotional response. That’s the power logos hold. So, while it may sound strange to have a logo inside a company that is already branded, your team needs that emotional identity. Companies like Disney, Warner Bros., and Sony get this. There is a Disney logo, a Disney Consumer Products logo, there’s even a Disney Consumer Products IT logo. Every team owns and displays with pride their derivative logo.
b.) Create a cohesive visual aesthetic and immersive environment – Even if you haven’t worked at Google, you know what their “campus” looks like. The place is legendary. Tourists actually make it a stop on their vacations, just to look at the outside of the buildings.
c.) Create an office design and layout – A lot of studios do this very well. Every floor/department has a totally different design, sometimes to the point that it becomes a point of pride and competition to see who can have the “coolest” work area.
d.) Create a unique dress code – Back in the day, IBM was legendary for this: Blue pinstripe suit, white shirt, red tie, black wingtips. Despite the fact that they abandoned this 20 years ago (at least), this is still considered the “IBM style.” Today, companies like Google have flipped this on its side, making their dress code, no dress code. Mark Zuckerberg has the hoodie. Think about it, this new lack of dress code is every bit as rigid a code as IBM. Don’t believe me; how would you fare coming into work at Google in a suit and tie?
e.) Create anything that you can dream of that builds that “cocoon” feeling – Like the fictional nemesis in Star Trek, what can you do to create that “Borg-like” state of being a part of one high-performing unit?

3. Create a unique lexicon, one that your team understands and uses, making them special and mysterious. Doctors famously use this technique to create an elite aura. Lawyers use the same trick, as do large corporations like GE, where there are acronyms for nearly everything under the sun. To be clear on this subject, ICS is not proposing you use this unique lexicon on your clients or audience. For them, your job is singular: Boil your message down to stupid simple.

4. Finally, create a personal attachment. Socialize your brand in intriguing ways to set yourself apart and make others envious, ways that make them, at a personal level, crave to be a part of your team.


Step 2: Elevate Your Brand to a Cult

Elevating your brand into a cult doesn’t mean creating slave drones and encouraging group-think. Look at that IBM example we used above; IBMers were instantly recognizable as being part of an elite team, doing something special. Today, it’s Google, with their radical idea of a cult culture of “uniformity against conformity.” Google, Facebook, Apple, and others have redefined the “cool workplace.” Flexibility, amenities like ping pong tables and sushi bars, and flex-time have replaced exclusive business retreats. So how can you elevate your brand?

1. Make people believe they belong to something special. Human nature is basically a superiority complex, so why not embrace it?

a.) Keep the team small and exclusive, a members only feel
b.) During the hiring process let candidates know that only the best make it on the team
c.) Orient your team to the organization they belong to and how important it is
d.) Set strong expectations for performance against other internal departments to remind your team they are the best
e.) When you succeed at your goals, celebrate the recognition within and outside your team
f.) Immortalize the stories of your most successful team members or achievements; make your team an icon that others use to exemplify “greatness”

2. Reinforce “fitting-in” with your brand image. When people feel like they fit in and are included, they strive to keep that feeling at all costs.

a.) Make “it” an important part of the screening process when hiring new team members. And, maintain some ambiguity as to what “it” really means. At Disney, there’s just a sense of “they’re Disney material.” Nobody can say exactly why or what that means; everyone just knows “it” when they see “it.”
b.) Reward those on the team that go above and beyond to embody your brand.
Drive engagement through brand-fitting activities (i.e. Facebook’s company-wide Hack Day that encourages their ideology that everybody at Facebook has the power to affect the company)
c.) Make your team the owners of your brand evolution
d.) Encourage team social gatherings outside of the office to enhance community-building
e.) Most importantly, every action you take and every decision your team makes must align with the brand 100%

Of course, we don’t expect people to tattoo themselves with your team’s logo; that’s probably not going to happen. But, if you want to have the power to attract top talent at bargain prices, retain your team across time, and inspire high-performing, focused productivity, we recommend you brand your team and strive to achieve that elusive “cult-like” status.