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

  • BigGameHunter

    Incredible post, Steve. I am consulting with an agency that is having their kumbaya moment. It’s a superficial, feel-good identity quest as a step in re-branding themselves. When they get done, you will still hear crickets. Truth is, as you point out, that culture is the outcome of good performance, not the cause of it until much later in company maturity. My issues along the way of getting there are with Kaplan & Norton and their balanced scorecards, which many companies still utilize as a means of defining roles and responsibilities. If there was anything that induced risk adversity, the balanced scorecard was it. I say to hell with it. To hell with titles, too. I once led a project with $700M in R&D investment, and as I was staffing it with 45 so-called marketing people, prospective hires asked to see the organization chart for the team. This tech category was so new that we had to invent the lexicon for it. So, it struck me that we were going to be traveling down a road that we were paving at the same time. We didn’t know squat when we started. After the first few hires, I realized that I was caught up in conventional wisdom. I started tearing up a mock org chart in front of prospective hires just to make a point. I said I was hiring thinkers and doers, and abandoning functional roles, and rewarding risk takers. This made everyone uneasy at first, but gave juice to the ones who had the right stuff. Fast forward to running the program and people were awesome. Real gunslingers. On any given day, a team member would get to lead an assignment outside of a prior role and experience. And I told them that there was no mistake that anyone of us could make that together we couldn’t unscrew, and that gave everyone the confidence to break out of scorecard boundaries. And, yes, I could not be so disrespectful to neglect the company mandate to fill out the balanced scorecards, but we laughed and back-filled in the detail required. In the meantime, we had a ball trusting each other and slaying dragons.

    • Steve Tobak

      And that, my friends, is how it’s done! Great story, BGH.

  • LeviMeow

    Great post!!!!!!!!!!!!!