5 Ways to Build a Passionate Company

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Executives have begun to understand that to build a great business, companies need a larger goal, one that transcends the traditional bottom line. The best and brightest talents are attracted to organizations that offer a broader purpose. But simply defining a purpose is not enough. It’s just a first step, your organization’s ante to get into the game. What sets companies apart, the companies where people love to work, is passion. People want to be passionate about what they do, and they want to be surrounded by people who are also passionate about what they do.

Unfortunately, the challenge for leaders is that there is no formal management theory for how to build, leverage, and measure the level of passion in your employees. It essentially falls into that ambiguous category of “you’ll know it when you see it.”

For me, a passionate employee is someone who pays attention to the whats and the hows of the company’s strategies and tactics, someone who is involved and curious and who constantly questions what the company is doing and their own role in making it successful. And they do that not because someone ordered them to, but because they want to. That’s the kind of intrinsic reward today’s workers seek out, not the lavish perks or financial bonuses that we mistakenly assumed motivated workers of the past.

For example, at Red Hat, where I serve as president and CEO, we have at least three associates who are so passionate about our company’s role in changing the world through open source technology that they have gotten a tattoo of “Shadowman,” the icon wearing a red fedora in our company logo. How many companies can say the same? That’s a level of permanence and sense of mission that no economist could ever have predicted with a chart.


Besides having no management theory for how to foster a “Shadowman tattoo” kind of passion, the other problem that surfaces is that the many executives I speak with still confuse engagement with morale, job satisfaction, and even happiness. Engagement isn’t about being happy. Happy people may or may not be engaged in the business.

When I was the chief operating officer at Delta Air Lines, I remember once being asked, “What are you going to do about our morale?” My answer? “Nothing.” Morale is an output of many things. If a workforce believes in and is passionate about their purpose, has the tools they need to do their work well, and is engaged in what they are trying to accomplish, then they’ll most likely have high morale. But if morale is low, then you should focus on your organization’s purpose, on tools, and on building engagement. Directly trying to make people happy is treating the symptoms, not the cause.

At Red Hat, we realize that people invest their valuable time by choosing to work with us because they want to feel like they are changing the world for the better. Here are five ways we foster the kind of passion that fuels great performance:

  • Let people show their emotions: We often use the term “emotional” like it’s a bad word, especially when it comes to the workplace. But inspiration, enthusiasm, motivation, and excitement are emotions too. If you ask your people to check their emotions (both the good and the bad) at the door, you can’t tap into their passion.
  • Hire passionate people: One way to get passionate people into your organization is to rely on the people who already work there to refer people they want to work with. Create a flexible incentive program that rewards people for bringing in candidates who are a perfect fit for your culture.
  • Fan the flames: Find ways to share and celebrate the passion of your team. Augment your company newsletter by shooting videos of your people in action or find opportunities to throw culture-inspired parties to celebrate your joint accomplishments.
  • Don’t sedate your rock stars: Give your people the autonomy to do the work that interests them. Then watch what happens when they put their energy and talent into whatever role they operate in.
  • Share context: Most companies have a stated corporate purpose or mission statement. Unfortunately, these are rarely-used words that do little to drive purpose or passion within the company. Our leaders’ job is to create context by connecting our associates’ job functions to the organization’s broader mission, why we do what we do. When you can make the connection between passion and mission, you can truly propel your organization to a new level of performance.

These tactics work. I recall attending a conference for our European partners where we invited the CIO of a large industrial giant to give a keynote speech. At a dinner during the conference, this CIO leaned over to me and said, almost in amazement, “I have never seen a company of this size where the people are so passionate. Look at how much energy they have and how much they care, and this is just an internal event. You need to figure out how to bottle this!” That was not just gratifying to hear, but also eye-opening because it helped frame for me how much passion can be contagious and how it infects others around you so that they want to work and collaborate with you.

It’s my belief that every organization has the potential for world-changing impact. The role of a leader is to foster passion around that impact and to keep that passion alive by reinforcing it every day. In Red Hat’s case, that means advocating for the power of open source and championing our role in bringing positive change to the world. But not everyone can be passionate and engaged about pursuing our purpose, and that’s OK. While it might sound counterintuitive, building the kind of company culture that people love means you can’t be all things to all people.


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