Back in the ‘90s, I took a job at a Dallas-based microprocessor company named Cyrix. Anyone who visited us understood our mission, thanks to the tombstone prominently displayed in the lobby. Engraved on its marble surface was the famous Intel Inside logo, followed by three foreboding letters: RIP.
That was our company’s goal: Kill the chip giant. Of course, the plan was to do it with killer products, but if you asked any one of the fanatics who worked on those products what got them out of bed every morning, that’s what they would have said.
The secret to creating a cult-like culture that inspires employees to work like dogs to achieve the impossible while loving every minute of it is not some prescriptive listicle with generic terms like “empowerment” and “engagement” or the ubiquitous notion of changing the world or making it a better place.
If that’s the path you’re on, you may as well pack it up and go home.
So what is the secret? Don’t ask me. Ask the founders. They’re the ones who come up with loony notions like a little startup killing off the most powerful chip company in history. They’ll be happy to indoctrinate you into the particular brand of religion that works for them. Just don’t be surprised if you find yourself getting roped into the story and angling for a job. I should know; it happened to me.
I’m still a little foggy on the how and the why, but I ended up as marketing veep at Cyrix and the company that acquired us, National Semiconductor, for nearly five years. It was hands down the most inspired and creative period of what turned out to be a long and eventful career. It was as if I’d found my purpose in life. And I would have worked there forever, if that were possible.
Don’t get me wrong. The founders were evil. The CEO despised marketing and sales. The pay wasn’t great. The marketing budget was anemic. The pressure was enormous. The competition was, well, Intel, in its heyday. But for hundreds of Cyrix employees, the opportunity to go head-to-head with mighty Intel was intoxicating. We didn’t succeed in slaying the giant, but we did kick some ass, and with a fraction of the resources.
So where does the motivational magic to pull off that sort of miracle come from?
A grand vision. A provocative purpose. A thrilling opportunity. An iconic product. An evil empire. A unique way of doing things. A charismatic founder who can sell religion to the Pope. Any number of factors can combine to create a whole that’s so much greater than the sum of its parts, it drives people to achieve the impossible.
Everyone talks about company culture, but most have it backwards. Culture isn’t something you set out to create, but something you don’t know you’ve created until after the fact. Culture is a way to document that unique combination of factors that somehow came together and, against all odds, inspired a whole lot of people to work day and night to do what nobody has ever done before.
Of course, there are all sorts of ways to motivate workers. But in the best run companies, employees feel like they’re part of a team out to do something remarkable they really connect with. They feel like they’re on an incredible voyage with kindred travelers headed to some unimaginably exotic destination. And the captain of the ship is the lunatic who had the audacity to unite them in pursuit of a common vision.
If you want to create the most motivated workforce you can imagine, find a purpose you really believe in. Find an unbeatable enemy to take down. Find a big hairy problem that nobody’s ever solved before. Find a mission that no sane person would embark on. Then find like-minded people, turn them loose and go out and kick some ass.
A version of this originally appeared on fortune.com.
Image credit James Duncan Davidson via Flickr