8 Rules For Creating A Passionate Work Culture

Several years ago I was in the Thomson Building in Toronto. I went down the hall to the small kitchen to get myself a cup of coffee. Ken Thomson was there, making himself some instant soup. At the time, he was the ninth-richest man in the world, worth approximately $19.6 billion. Enough, certainly, to afford a nice lunch. I looked at the soup he was stirring. “It suits me just fine,” he said, smiling.

Thomson understood value. Neighbors reported seeing him leave his local grocery store with jumbo packages of tissues that were on sale. He bought off-the-rack suits and had his old shoes resoled. Yet he had no difficulty paying almost $76 million for a painting (for Peter Paul Rubens’s Massacre of the Innocents, in 2002). He sought value, whether it was in business, art, or groceries.

In 1976, Thomson inherited a $500-million business empire that was built on newspapers, publishing, travel agencies, and oil. By the time he died, in 2006, his empire had grown to $25 billion.

He left both a financial legacy and an art legacy, but his most lasting legacy might be the culture he created. Geoffrey Beattie, who worked closely with him, said that Ken wasn’t a business genius. His success came from being a principled investor and from surrounding himself with good people and staying loyal to them. In return he earned their loyalty.

For the long-term viability of any enterprise, Thomson understood that you needed a viable corporate culture. It, too, had to be long-term. So he cultivated good people and kept them. Thomson worked with honest and competent business managers and gave them his long-term commitment and support. From these modest principles, an empire grew.

Thomson created a culture that extended out from him and has lived after him. Here are eight rules for creating the right conditions for a culture that reflects your creed:

1. Hire the right people

Hire for passion and commitment first, experience second, and credentials third. There is no shortage of impressive CVs out there, but you should try to find people who are interested in the same things you are. You don’t want to be simply a stepping stone on an employee’s journey toward his or her own (very different) passion. Asking the right questions is key: What do you love about your chosen career? What inspires you? What courses in school did you dread? You want to get a sense of what the potential employee believes.

2. Communicate

Once you have the right people, you need to sit down regularly with them and discuss what is going well and what isn’t. It’s critical to take note of your victories, but it’s just as important to analyze your losses. A fertile culture is one that recognizes when things don’t work and adjusts to rectify the problem. As well, people need to feel safe and trusted, to understand that they can speak freely without fear of repercussion.

The art of communication tends to put the stress on talking, but listening is equally important. Great cultures grow around people who listen, not just to each other or to their clients and stakeholders. It’s also important to listen to what’s happening outside your walls. What is the market saying? What is the zeitgeist? What developments, trends, and calamities are going on?

3. Tend to the weeds

A culture of passion capital can be compromised by the wrong people. One of the most destructive corporate weeds is the whiner. Whiners aren’t necessarily public with their complaints. They don’t stand up in meetings and articulate everything they think is wrong with the company. Instead, they move through the organization, speaking privately, sowing doubt, strangling passion. Sometimes this is simply the nature of the beast: they whined at their last job and will whine at the next. Sometimes these people simply aren’t a good fit. Your passion isn’t theirs. Constructive criticism is healthy, but relentless complaining is toxic. Identify these people and replace them.

4. Work hard, play hard

To obtain passion capital requires a work ethic. It’s easy to do what you love. In the global economy we can measure who has a superior work ethic, who is leading in productivity. Not many industries these days thrive on a forty-hour work week. A culture where everyone understands that long hours are sometimes required will work if this sacrifice is recognized and rewarded.

5. Be ambitious

“Make no little plans: they have no magic to stir men’s blood.” These words were uttered by Daniel Burnham, the Chicago architect whose vision recreated the city after the great fire of 1871. The result of his ambition is an extraordinary American city that still has the magic to stir men’s blood. Ambition is sometimes seen as a negative these days, but without it we would stagnate. You need a culture that supports big steps and powerful beliefs. You can see these qualities in cities that have transformed themselves. Cities are the most visible examples of successful and failed cultures. Bilbao and Barcelona did so and became the envy of the world and prime tourist destinations. Pittsburgh reinvented itself when the steel industry withered. But Detroit wasn’t able to do the same when the auto industry took a dive.

6. Celebrate differences 

When choosing students for a program, most universities consider more than just marks. If you had a dozen straight-A students who were from the same socio-economic background and the same geographical area, you might not get much in the way of interesting debate or interaction. Great cultures are built on a diversity of background, experience, and interests. These differences generate energy, which is critical to any enterprise.

7. Create the space 

Years ago, scientists working in laboratories were often in underground bunkers and rarely saw their colleagues; secrecy was prized. Now innovation is prized. In cutting-edge research and academic buildings, architects try to promote as much interaction as possible. They design spaces where people from different disciplines will come together, whether in workspace or in common leisure space. Their reasoning is simple: it is this interaction that helps breed revolutionary ideas. Creative and engineering chat over coffee. HR and marketing bump into one another in the fitness center. Culture is made in the physical space. Look at your space and ask, “Does it promote interaction and connectivity?”

8. Take the long view 

If your culture is dependent on this quarter’s earnings or this month’s sales targets, then it is handicapped by short-term thinking. Passion capitalists take the long view. We tend to overestimate what we can do in a year, but underestimate what we can do in five years. The culture needs to look ahead, not just in months but in years and even decades.

The writer Arthur Koestler said that a writer’s ambition should be to trade a hundred contemporary readers for ten readers in ten years’ time and for one reader in a hundred years’ time. Lasting influence is better than a burst of fame. Keep an eye on the long view.

Excerpted from Passion Capital: The World's Most Valuable Asset © 2012 by Paul Alofs. Published by Signal, a division of Random House of Canada Limited. Reproduced by arrangement with the Publisher. All rights reserved.

[Image: Flickr user PurpleMattFish]

Add New Comment


  • Karun Rathod

    There are two categories of people, one who think passion is not important at all and the other who think passion is all that matters. I used to be the first type but overtime, I have found out that without passion, nothing can be achieved. “Passion” is fuel for innovation which gives business a boost and a competitive advantage. Read this article to find out how Passion adds value to your business: http://bit.ly/1ztCoo5

  • Karun Rathod

    There are two categories of people, one who think passion is not important at all and the other who think passion is all that matters. I used to be the first type but overtime, I have found out that without passion, nothing can be achieved. “Passion” is fuel for innovation which gives business a boost and a competitive advantage. Read this article to find out how Passion adds value to your business: http://bit.ly/1ztCoo5

  • Nanami91shoujo

    to the whiners and complainers,
    why do you guys even reading this then?
    answer me that.

  • Paul Alofs

    Passion Capital is about putting your passion to work by following 7 principles including culture.  Creed or "belief" is the first principle. Check out the J&J Credo written by Robert Wood Johnson in 1934. Use your Labour Day weekend to put your passion to work and "challenge your fears- not fear your challenges".  Happy Labour Day.  Paul Alofs- author- Passion Capital. Thanks Fast Company for the profile.

  • Recruiting Animal

    You didn't tell us how to dump the guy you're talking to and move on -- and this is an essential skill.

    If you want to talk about it on the Recruiting Animal Show let me know - http://OccupyRecruiting.com

  • Kanji Pictographix

    Bland platitudes. 'Work hard. Play hard.' has been debunked for some time now.

  • Danvoltaire

    Strangling passion what a profound word ..good fit.** how can one verifify a sorry fit for a compagny when in todays'economy most places are crowded with free loaders. Ready daily to copy and claim their own other peoples'ideas.

  • 2ros

    I’ve been hearing from
    my friends that they are in grey area when they are in their workplace. These
    points that you have shared could be what’s lacking in them and their workplace. I also read a quite similar motivating post with yours, a how to
    article of blocking negative thoughts at workplace http://www.editorialimagefinde...

  • Danielle Hatfield

    Loved the "weeding" rule about creating a culture of passion by replacing those who 'speak privately, sow doubt and strangle passion' and remember to celebrate success with those who are committed to contributing to the conversation of change. 

  • Xenek Stoehr

    Constructive criticism is healthy, but relentless complaining is toxic ???
    Anyone who looks at the world as a whole, and fails to relentlessly complain is toxic. Being nice doesn't solve problems, it creates them. Just how much natural ecosystem is left? How many fish are left? How much debt is carried? How many currencies have collapsed? How interconnected are financial woes presently? How many old growth forests are there that aren't isolated like tiny islands between roads and polluting toxic cement cities of industry, and subdivisions of obese consumers? How many .. argh, I give up. Perhaps I can improve this article without relentlessly complaining about everything. People need to chose WHAT to complain about, and learn enough about that specific thing to be able to make their voice heard over the din of the weak, who merrily and happily smile as their 'spaceship earth' is destroyed from within.

  • Career Valet

    Great tips on developing a passionate culture! I have used some of these tips in the past and have found them to be on the mark. I look forward to reading the book and passing on these ideas!!

  • Liz Razzano

    I like the word "loyalty".  We ask employees to be "loyal" to their employer or company but when the world gets in a tough place, with many people losing their jobs through no fault of their own necessarily, do companies keep employees employed as "loyalty" to the company for all their hard work and dedication over the years?  Imagine the loyalty that an employee would have to a company if they knew that through tough times they still had their job.  Exploring other avenues to see the wave through, but how many companies almost automatically turn to redundancies simply because their bottom line would suffer (make less of a profit not necessarily a loss).  Imagine if you had a contingency plan for those times that could ride the wave out.  Loyalty is tested at its weakest point - and here it is.  How "loyal" can one be if it is only expected to be one sided. Loyalty is a two way street, not a one sided commitment...

  • rick maurer

    While I
    agree that items on this list can be important attributes of an organization in
    attracting and retaining talented and committed people, I do have one concern.  

    Tend to the
    Weeds does make sense. Far too many organizations hang onto people who aren’t
    adding value or are diminishing the performance of others. But whining in
    meetings is not synonymous with poor performance. Whining can be irritating,
    yes, but sometimes that whining is just what we need to hear.  

    I often
    encourage my clients to have “coffee with Joe” (and Joe can be either gender).
    These are the people who will tell you things that others may never have the
    courage to say. Since the Joe’s of the world don’t seem to understand the
    phrase “career limiting move,” they speak candidly.   

    If we tend
    to the weeds too vigorously, we risk subverting the ideal of Celebrating
    Differences. When we say a behavior or even expression of a belief can get you
    fired, we invite conformity. It’s like saying, we celebrate differences, but
    only those we approve of.

  • Angelo

    In today's competitive corporate environment, everything else will work if the recruiters or interviwers set the correct expectations with the candidate. You may be a global IT, Fortune 500 company, but if the job requires the usual copy paste skills, ensure that you communicate it appropriately. An employee joining or working with the team with 'high hopes' can be dangerous.

  • Christopher Smith

    Solid post Paul. Tending to the weeds and taking the long view have been especially important to @arryve successful five years of straight growth.  Thanks for sharing and I look forward to reading Passion Capital.  @disruptsmith

  • James Von Hendy

    Oh boy! Some of the same tripe we've seen for years. 1) Hire for passion. Not a bad concept, but let's face it. Work is work, and in high tech the company has no loyalty to its employees, only its shareholders or investors. Hire for skill, which usually indicates interest and ability. 4: Work hard, play hard: Oops, forgot to talk about "play hard." Study after study shows that in an 8 hour work day only 4-6 hours are actually productive. Longer hours? The percentages drop startlingly. Yes, you're a body in a cube, but you're not really being productive if you work 40+ hours a week despite what you and your manager(s) might think. Look it up. 8: Take the long view: I agree, and I've yet to see it in ANY high tech company that's gone through an IPO.  Most startups fail here, too because they have to please their venture capitalists or angels. The greatest driver in high tech and business in general I'm afraid, is fear itself.

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    my Names is Daniel Jennifer ,AM from Canada .i never believed in love spells or magic until i met this spell caster once when i went to Africa in June last year on a business summit i ment a man called Dr Sango, is powerful he could help you cast a spells to bring back my love s gone misbehaving lover looking for some one to love you bring back lost money and magic money spell or spell for a good job i m now happy & a living testimony cos the man i had wanted to marry left me 4weeks before our wedding and my life was upside down cos our relationship has been on for 3 year i really loved him, but his mother was against me and he had no good paying job so when i met this spell caster, i told him what happened and explained the situation of things to him at first i was undecided,skeptical and doubtful, but i just gave it a try and in 6 days when i returned to Vancouver my boyfriend (is now my husband ) he called me by himself and came to me apologizing that everything had been settled with his mom and family and he got a new job interview so we should get married i didn’t believe it cos the spell caster only asked for my name and my boyfriends name and all i wanted him to do well we are happily married now and we are expecting our little kid and my husband also got a new job and our lives became much better in case anyone needs the spell caster for some help his email address: sangospelltemple@gmail.com

  • Mary Beth Brennan

    What a great article!  This shall be a schematic for the Start-Up Businesses.  We here in Austin, TX do believe in work hard play hard that is for sure but the key to anything that one is passionate about is building those partnerships.  At BuildersUpdate.com our model focus on "Building Successful Partnerships with Residential Builders". Thus keep in mind that this was all created by Passionate Real Estate Professionals.  

    I will be sharing this today.....Thanks so much. 

    Mary Beth Brennan