Creating an authentic business organization

Sunday MBA provides ideas on running better businesses and succeeding in the modern workplace, this week from Harvard Business Review and Rob Goffee and Gareth Jones, authors of “Why Should Anyone Work Here?: What It Takes to Create an Authentic Organization”

To attract the best people and succeed as a business, the “authentic organization” — where people can be their best selves — will need to foster environments where creativity and innovation are at a premium, employees feel engaged and committed, and leadership pipelines are cultivated for future success. Workplaces with those qualities look for an unusual kind of diversity, hiring people for differences that are more than skin deep.

Differences — not just diversity. Let’s be clear about what we mean by “difference.” While many companies define difference along the lines of traditional diversity categories — gender, race, age, ethnicity — the executives we interviewed were after something subtler. They surrounded themselves with people whose differences in perspectives, habits of mind, and core assumptions would challenge and push them in new directions.

Authentic workplaces allow people to be themselves: to have a voice, exercise discretion, express disagreement, show what they really care about, and feel “natural” or self-fulfilled on the job. The second, equally important aspect is that effective organizations are willing to leverage the differences among their people. This is critical in fostering a culture of authenticity.


Consider the following three workplaces: a cluster of shops and cafes in a small Italian town; a hip, successful record label in Manhattan; and the British Army.

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Life and work in a Tuscan town. Let’s begin with the cluster of shops in the Italian town, where one lucky author (Rob Goffee) has an apartment. When he and his spouse walk into the local delicatessen, the owners greet them with a kiss on each cheek. They ask about the Goffees’ children and tell them about theirs.

The Goffees enjoy a meal in the local pizzeria. When they try to pay with a credit card, the owner, Enrico, reminds them it’s cash only. Unfortunately, the Goffees have just spent their last euro at the deli. “No worries,” Enrico says. “See you next time.”

In the town bar, they strike up a conversation with Cristina as she serves them drinks. Like them, she’s a soccer fan. Cristina thinks they are out of luck getting tickets for big games, so she searches the local newspaper for matches among the smaller teams. Then she provides the Goffees with directions to the grounds and the best local bar there.

Great organizations are just like this — individuals do more than merely fulfill role obligations.


Conflict and creativity in the music business. The second workplace is a cool record label in Manhattan, where a dispute broke out over which single should be the first track released off an album. Two executives engaged in a heated discussion. Tempers and passion rose almost to the point of a fistfight. But things calmed down and the executives devised a novel strategy for releasing a single from the album. That’s just how things work around there.

The label’s consistently high levels of creativity and innovation are accompanied by high levels of conflict, passion, and heated exchange. Most organizations say they want creativity and innovation. What they don’t understand is that this typically involves passionate conflict.

Developing leaders in the British Army. Terry left an inner-city London school with few if any formal qualifications. Then he got a break — an interview to join the army. He got in, and within a year, he had seen service in Africa, Latin America, and mainland Europe. The civil war in Sierra Leone, he said, will never leave him. He had to make big decisions on which life and death hung, and far away from the support of a big organizational headquarters. He is now a regimental sergeant major.

What does a British army recruit have to do with creating an authentic workplace? Effective leadership development rests upon rich, early, and diverse experiences. Military organizations recognize that the moment they move into action, they cannot rely simply on the power of hierarchy. They will need leaders throughout the organization.

Terry’s story in the army illustrates how rich leadership pipelines require different kinds of people. The strongest organizational leadership pipelines rest on the recognition and cultivation of individuality.

Reprinted by permission of Harvard Business Review.