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From IBM to Google, the Birth of Company Culture


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To be an “IBMer” was to be different:

As biographer Kevin Maney claims in The Maverick and His Machine, Watson was essentially the first celebrity CEO. In the midst of the Great Depression, he was the highest-paid man in America, with an annual salary approaching $365,000 (the press nicknamed him the “Thousand-Dollar-a-Day-Man”). Tycoons like Andrew Carnegie may have revolutionized the corporate structure and Henry Ford the manufacturing process, but, as Maney writes, “what Watson’s IBM did better than any company in the world was to create … a strong, cohesive — and successful — corporate culture.”

And it began with Watson’s own words — which could be found tacked all over the company’s offices. Salesmen internalized slogans like “Make Things Happen,” and Watson himself seemed to speak in catchphrases like “You have to put your heart in the business and the business in your heart.” Most famously, a frustrated Watson once wrote “THINK” with a blue crayon during a sales presentation — a single word that would thereafter serve as both an admonition and a brand for the growing company.

More than words, though, Watson had a vision for his company beyond the bottom line. As Maney tells OZY, the CEO “truly believed IBM was going to be a great company that would have a major and positive impact on the world,” a mission-driven ethos evident today in places like Google and Facebook. To be an “IBMer” was to be different. Even before Prohibition, IBM’s salesmen (and they were all men) were not permitted to drink; smoking was discouraged; and to ensure that his team could seamlessly engage with the bankers and other executives they sold to, Watson required them to wear suits and ties.

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As companies like Google try to retain their best and brightest and foster a culture that will outlast the originators, they can learn a lot from Big Blue. Like any culture, corporate culture can be vulnerable, transient; it must adapt or perish. Otherwise, what you are building is not a hive but a mausoleum — a Machu Picchu in Mountain View, complete with cryptic slogans, nap pods and massage tables for future generations to decipher.

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