When corporate culture becomes cult. And why you want this.

Did you ever stop to think about how close the words "cult" and "culture" are to each other, but how very different the two really are? Or how some businesses have managed to create a "cult culture," not just with customers but with employees?

First, I want to credit entrepreneur Anthony Tjan, who writes the "Upstarts and Titans" blog for Harvard Business Review, with the stream of consciousness ramble in this Business Brains entry. You can read his thoughts on "Cult Culture as Competitive Advantage" at this link.

Second, I want to spend a moment with Merriam-Webster to define both of the terms I'm talking about, discounting the obvious definitions related to religion:

cult - Great devotion to a person, idea, object, movement, or work

culture - The set of shared attitudes, values, goals, and practices that characterizes an institution or organization.

I want to key in on two words as the foundation for my next thoughts here: "Devotion" and "shared."

Most businesses are great at laying out some sort of mission statement or vision, one that their employees are told they are supposed to embrace. In fact, a session on the culture is probably all part of the orientation session and the handbook that their human resources department makes new hires sign. How exciting does that sound?

What's missing is the devotion to that mission statement, which is not something that anyone can dictate. For this, you must rely on your existing team, from the very top to bottom of the company. Indeed, a new hire at a company with a "cult culture" probably already HAS that devotion. So much so, that they sought out the job in the first place.

How many people who work for your organization can say they work there because they believe in what your business is doing, and not just because they want the paycheck you've promised every two weeks?

In his HBR blog, Tjan suggests that it is tough for larger companies to create a cult culture because they tend to overprocess every marketing or communications decision and because too many rules have been put in place. Cult culture can also die when a smaller company is taken over by a larger one.

That said, cult culture can be a huge differentiator.

Of course the company with the biggest cult culture in technology world is, without a doubt, Apple. Since the very early days of its existence, its employees were willing to work countless hours in the cause of breathtaking different technology. I can say this firsthand because not only did my mother work there through the Macintosh launch, I personally worked there as an intern in 1985, when things were most decidedly NOT good. The thing I learned about Apple at that time is that it counted on EVERY employee to pull their weight. And every employee that I came across there WANTED to do that.

Salesforce.com and Google also spring to mind as company's with cult cultures. I'm using tech companies as examples, because I know them best. Interestingly, like Apple, these two companies also have larger than life leaders who could be described as slightly eccentric. I'm betting there's a link, but I don't know what it is right now. Subject for another post.

Anyway, what it comes down to is this: Along with spending gazoodles of money on pricey "branding" initiatives, you should be spending some time thinking about what sort of culture your employees represent and making sure your messages align. Do they act like they're on the clock? And what about when they're not on the clock? What are they saying about your company? Is every one of them a positive representation of your brand?

It's not something you can dictate, necessarily, but it's something you can harness.

This is especially important in the age of social media, where personal and professional conversations converge and merge.

I'm a believer in this.

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com