If you're like me, "coolness" is not something you give much thought to so I was surprised when Rodd Wagner listed it as one of the 12 rules in his book Widgets: The 12 New Rules for Managing Your Employees As If They're Real People.
As he explains, "cool" is difficult to define but at its core is about being you with all its inherent uniqueness. When applied to companies, these are the companies that do things differently because their leaders stay true to themselves and their visions—even when it's different than everyone else's. They don't try to be "cool" or imitate anyone else; they just do what's aligned with their vision and best for their company culture and employees. Think Southwest and its putting its employees first, allowing them to have fun and zaniness, which has led to their having 40 years of consecutive profits in a highly competitive and struggling industry.
And as with most employee and culture related issues, it starts with the leader. A CEO true to himself, using that to hire and recognize his staff instead of doing something because a consultant recommended it, is more likely to get and keep great and engaged employees. Rodd brings the example of Larry Schoenecker at BI Worldwide who started the "Summer of Love" practice to motivate his staff: summers full of parties on the company front lawn, beer, music, flip flops...and every other Friday afternoon off. This was such a success that it's now become part of their brand and all stems from Larry's defining himself as an aging hipster. But it was true to himself and his values and transformed BIW to a "cool" place others want to work for.
What struck me the most about this new rule and this chapter is the irony and the challenge. The irony that we want and need leaders to be uniquely themselves and applaud their differences and the challenge in maintaining this as you scale. Rodd explains that even Southwestern Airline is struggling to maintain its coolness after merging with the very uncool AirTran.
So how can businesses and leaders stay true to their unique selves? I don't think there is one answer and as Rodd points out, it has to work for the individual culture to be deemed cool as opposed to fake and cringe-worthy. All leaders can do is pay attention and change things that are not working or appreciated. Being cool does not mean you're infallible.
Have you worked for a cool company? What do you think made it cool and what did you appreciate most about it?