Can corporate soul outlive its creator?

When Apple, Starbucks and Google showed signs of losing their souls, their respective founders returned as CEOs (see What is Microsoft Missing?). Their expressed intentions were to restore their companies' withering souls. Is it possible for founders and charismatic leaders to institutionalize their companies' souls in ways that outlive their own tenures as CEOs? I believe generally not. It is true that the momentum a founder or great leader gives his or her company can leapfrog it so far ahead of its competition that the company will continue on a superior growth trajectory for some time after the leader moves on. However, after a time the corporate soul will dilute, wither and die. The time it takes to die depends on how deeply the key components of the company's corporate soul were embedded into its culture and process to begin with. There are two caveats though:

  1. If the purpose and values of the company are as aligned with the new leader's personal purpose as they were with the founder's, then the soul can survive the transition. When I met Mike Duke , President and CEO of Wal-Mart Stores Inc., I understood how under his leadership the soul that Sam Walton breathed into Walmart is being re-infused into the company. Mike's authentic humility and his personal passion for helping customers save money to live better have enabled him and his team to give Walmart back a soul it almost lost between 2000 and 2008. The size of the Walton family's holding in the company and Rob Walton's Chairmanship have probably played a role too.
  2. New leaders who are authentic and, not trying to imitate their predecessor's style lead by the greatness of their own characters, can remold the company around their own soul. A lot will change, reinvention will occur, the outcome will be different, but the company will have soul. This might be what Michael Eisner did for Disney twenty years after Walt Disney died.

One thing is for sure: the increasing noise in the blogosphere for Bill Gates to return to Microsoft is unfair to him and wouldn't solve Microsoft's problem of soullessness. Mr. Gates has moved on and is giving soul to new industries and new visions that could be bigger than Microsoft, like fixing extreme poverty and poor health in developing countries, and the failures of America's education system. Microsoft has already fulfilled the Purpose for which Paul Allen and Bill Gates created it. That is why its growth path is now floundering. For a new soul it needs a new leader of brilliance, vision and great character. It needs a leader who can see how Microsoft as it could be, not as it is, can change the world again in ways that no other company can.

The economic effects of a vital corporate soul last far longer than the tenures, or sometimes even the lives, of the founders who instilled that soul into their corporations. These effects can certainly last long enough for the right successor to either continue nourishing that soul or give the corporation a new soul of their own.

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