The Flip Side

What Makes a Sustainable Culture!

In early December 2020, I had an opportunity to sit in on a virtual fireside chat with Scott Dorsey, former Founder and CEO of ExactTarget at the 2020 Instill Culture Conference. ExactTarget is a provider of digital marketing automation and analytics software that was acquired by Salesforce.com in 2013. As mentioned in a previous LinkedIn article, this conference brought together a community of forward-thinkers from sports, the military, business, academia, and the venture capital worlds to brainstorm how to build positive organizational cultures.

What was most remarkable about the session was how many of the ideas espoused, were concepts practiced during my formative career years at Tandem Computers. This I knew because I’d just then uncovered in a misfiled folder, a speech that I had given in 1987 on Tandem’s corporate culture. I can’t recall now why I was the last-minute stand-in for then-president Jimmy Treybig, but it motivated me to track him down and get his take on the relevance in 2021 of Tandem’s then incredibly innovative people management ideas.

In this article, I’m going to focus on four of the areas that Dorsey indicated are critical for maintaining a successful and sustainable culture. With each, I’ll share some stories of how these concepts were applied by Jimmy at Tandem.

Jimmy showing off a Tandem Computer

For those unaware in 1974, Jimmy Treybig at 33 years of age started Tandem Computers, the dominant manufacturer of innovative fault-tolerant computer systems that took Silicon Valley by storm at the time. Tandem’s NonStop systems were used by banks for ATM and POS networks, by manufacturers for just-in-time factories, by telecommunications companies for switching before Cisco Systems came along, and anything else that required applications that were always available. Jimmy was also unique because it wasn’t just technology that interested him, he also wanted to create a new way of leading and managing people.

The Tandem Computers philosophy focused on four guiding themes that were groundbreaking at the time namely that:

  • All people were good
  • All employees were the same whether they were workers or management
  • Every single person needed to understand the essence of the business
  • Every employee needed to benefit from the company’s success

They were the heart and soul and anchored how the business was to be managed.

Sustainable Culture Concept #1: Creating a sense of mission, a sense of urgency, with a common fate environment and understanding that leaders, managers, and individual contributors are all in this together.

Though basic ‘table stakes’ today, Tandem’s continual focus on customer satisfaction, sustained profitability, building a work environment that attracted and retained outstanding people, and quality in everything provided a ‘North Star’ that anchored employee and leadership behavior both in theory and in practice.  Through constant repetition, these goals were a well-known mantra commonly understood by all employees and all levels of management. Another important factor was that Jimmy encouraged everyone to understand in detail the specifics of the company’s entire operating plan and strategies, including how the business functioned and why.  This common understanding of the strategic and the tactical level along with related metrics was what helped provided clear direction to the team and individual work plans. I can’t emphasize enough how important understanding the ‘why’ and ‘what’s in it for me was.’ In so doing, when specific organizations or teams ‘wandered off the path’, it was readily apparent to all. Teams and individuals either self-corrected or were gently reminded and shifted back into alignment. Below is an example of Tandem’s entire detailed business plan, condensed to a single page poster size that to this day hangs on the wall in my home office.

Sustainable Culture Concept #2:  Engaging in proactive communications focused on constantly trying to break down the barriers between people horizontally and vertically and in fostering an appreciation for the value of diversity.

First Friday set and poster

Jimmy’s viewpoint was that structured and unstructured communications were the glue that held the organization together and fostered positive employee action.  I know it’s hard to believe but Tandem was one of the first company’s to enable email for everyone, not just the leadership team. You’ll need to read my book Tandem Computers Unplugged for more stories on how difficult this was to deliver on. The company was also one of the first to not just create an internal TV network, called Tandem TV, but also to staff it with people who deeply understood that content mattered. This meant that shows were developed that people were really interested in watching, so participation rates were really high. The most popular show was called First Friday, a ‘Saturday Night Live’-like a monthly update that included active executive participation in comedy sketches that spoofed themes from other then-popular TV shows, companies, products, locations, and situations. Though grainy many of the sketches can still be found on YouTube, though to some, the humor may be somewhat dated. These tools were of course in addition to the standard array of written vehicles, whose content is now more likely to be delivered through social media, blogs, podcasts, and the like.

Final contestants for the UK's nobbly knees contest

But what turned out to be more important were the unstructured communication vehicles and programs that enabled leadership transparency and the mixing of people with others across the business that they wouldn’t normally have been in contact with. There were mixed softball leagues, Christmas and Halloween parties, the UK’s knobbly knees and Corporate’s Incredible Hunk contests, a spring ‘Hoe Down’, and talent shows. These all served to built trust, empathy and enabled easier ‘bottoms up’ raising of issues that might not have any other ‘safe’ forum for discussion. There was even a volunteer department called TOADs aka the Tandem Organizing Activities Department. The most famous activity of course was the Friday Beer Bust. Employees, spouses, spouse equivalents, significant others, families, customers, partners, and vendors were all invited to mix, share ideas and perspectives and get to know each other in a relaxed non-threatening environment. Everyone knew that no matter where they were in the world there was always a place to go ‘hang-out for an hour or two on a Friday afternoon at the local Tandem office. As a team-building exercise, there was nothing like it and the occasional debates on issues people cared about were awesome and enlightening. The real value of all of the methods were that it encouraged people and teams across the business and the globe, who likely never would interact, an opportunity to do so and learn something about each other along the way.

Image of beer bust by the pool and the final contestants for the Incredible Hunk Contest

One of Dorsey’s, very successful communications-related efforts was what he called ‘The Friday Note from the CEO’.  He made a personal commitment to the company that every Friday afternoon, they would hear from him via a short note.  In it, he would share as openly as he could, what he did that week, what meetings he held, what he was thinking about including challenges, key metrics, and accomplishments around the company. The response at both leadership and the individual levels was extraordinarily positive.

Sustainable Culture Concept #3: Championing employee advocacy and demonstrating care and concern for their best interests. 

Jimmy’s view was that leaders at all levels needed to actively model the concept that the people were the company and that every person at whatever level was important. He constantly encouraged people to not be afraid to express their views and that those views needed to be heard. In so doing, a people-oriented management style could be internalized and maintained. This in turn would maximize individual and team creativity and innovation.  Under these conditions, the role of management could also become less focused on motivating and more focused on encouraging creativity, communication, and providing appropriate situation-specific leadership and problem-solving capability.

Poster advertising Tandem's Value System

In the early days, Jimmy used to interview every employee no matter what the position he or she was applying for and would explain the company’s people philosophy.  Later as the company achieved exponential growth and this became more difficult, he created a specific Tandem Philosophy Department and actively participated in every new-hire orientation event. As a known champion for the people, every employee felt like they had an individual relationship with him. He also had human resources leaders who were just as committed to the people as he was, who helped him ‘think right about people’. Jimmy was also willing to show his vulnerability – even if wrapped in an ‘awe shucks’ Texan folksiness to disarm and charm. I’ll never forget watching him on Tandem TV pushing CPUs out the door at the end of the quarter and using a Swiss army knife to show how easy a Tandem was to maintain. As Jimmy reminded me “every leader wants diversity, but it isn’t just given to you, you have to fight for it. Leaders have to demonstrate every day that they are fair and that every job and every person matters! ”

As Dorsey said “by focusing on trying to build one-to-one actual or virtual relationships with every employee, it was easier to ensure that the core values and culture that were communicated internally and externally and that they matched the behavior inside the four walls of the business.

Sustainable Culture Concept #4: Acknowledging the importance and significance of culture in helping maintain competitive advantage.

$1 Billion dollar Party trophy, Tandem coffee mug with systems architecture, employee congrats for attaining high customer satisfaction ratings.

As noted by Dorsey and Jimmy, “high performers want to be a part of high performing companies and there’s a strong correlation between high performing companies and high performing cultures.” One important contributor Dorsey said is to build strong goodwill deposits’ amongst employees so that when tough times arrive the goodwill created can be drawn upon. At Tandem, in addition to identifiable brand colors and a constant supply of themed T-shirts and coffee mugs, Tandem gave out plaques, awards, and trophies tied to valued themes, five and ten-year anniversary special gifts, stock options, and special celebrations for key moments of success such as the $1 Billion Party. Many, if not all, came with a personal note from him, – an example of which you can see in the image above. Again you’ll have to get my book Tandem Computers Unplugged, to read about that blowout extravaganza. But the two Rewards and Recognition programs that really stood out were the paid six-week sabbaticals that all employees were able to take every four years for mindful rejuvenation and the Tandem Outstanding Performers Program called TOPS. Designed for non-sales individual contributors TOPS was held several times a year in exotic spots around the world.  Individuals, teams, and managers could nominate employees who would gather along with their ‘spouse, spouse equivalent, or significant other’ for a themed 3-day meeting. With selected ‘guest managers’, groups would brainstorm strategies, tactics, listen to outside thought leaders in the mornings and socialize and play in the afternoons. One classic was the San Antonio trip to which I was nominated. From the buses taking us all to the afternoon cattle ranch venue for a traditional Texas barbeque, all of the executives participating were ‘kidnapped and jailed’ on the ranch’s faux main street. The only way to ‘get out of jail’ was for the employees to ‘post bail’ with all of the funds raised later donated to a local charity.

Posters and award plaque for TOPS

As Dorsey said: “if employees fall in love with the company, are engaged and care deeply about what they are doing, this carries over to how they care for customers, partners, suppliers and each other.” In addition “if employee’s discretionary time can be captured, they will be working on the business because they love it so much, and are passionate about it. They will care about their colleagues and they will care about their customers.”

According to the noted organizational culture and leadership experts Edgar and Peter Schein, “Culture contains observed behavior, the rituals and rites that the group chooses to adopt, the espoused values the group chooses to promulgate, the learning and adaptive structures and processes the group evolves, the deep and taken-for-granted assumptions that give meaning to daily behavior. Culture in the end, even contains what the group defines as leadership. 

Image of crowds at a 2008 Reunion and a picture of Jimmy

In its heyday, Tandem was indeed the place in Silicon Valley where everyone wanted to work and this was long before the Great Places to Work survey. Even today, over 25 years after the company was acquired, there is a strong and vibrant Facebook Group (that is constantly sharing stories and reinforcing the Tandem philosophy and value system. For most of us, being at Tandem was one of the best working experiences of our lives and is the culture standard to which every other company we have ever worked for is compared.

In light of the current COVID shift to hybrid work and the growing ‘great resignation’ employee attrition trends, understanding what makes a sustainable corporate culture seems paramount. After talking with Jimmy, I think that most of the people-first concepts that Jimmy expounded on are just as relevant today as they were 25 years ago. How’s that for making a meaningful contribution to this world! Though the form, media, and technology have changed to suit modern sensibilities building a corporate culture that has specific meaning is critical, not just for ongoing quarterly success, but to enable a work environment that really does put the people first.

One last thought from Jimmy, and though he didn’t put it this way exactly, the essence of what he was saying was this. “Look I often get credit for the longevity of the Tandem culture, but it was really the people who made it so.” By hiring the right people, nudging them in the right direction, modeling the behavior he wanted to see, over time the culture became self-sustaining, which it has for nigh on 50 years.

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Author


  • Gaye Clemson is the founder and Managing Director of Globalinkage, a consultancy focused on using cross-functional team empowerment, Attentive Leadership© and Agile Strategy Execution operating models to enable effective transformational culture change. Having been around the Information Technology (IT) industry since the early 1980s, including 8 years at Tandem Computers during its formative years, Clemson has seen digital transformation and the people changes it brings ‘up close and personal’. As a thought leader on the people side of transformational and culture change, she speaks frequently at national and industry conferences including leading a Master Class in 2020 on a new leadership mindset for the Association of Strategic Planning. She is the published author of Agile Strategy Execution - Revolutionizing the HOW! (2016); Tandem Computers Unplugged - A People's History (2012) as well as multiple LinkedIn articles on a wide range of transformational change related topics. In her free time she researches and writes oral history narratives on the human history of Ontario, Canada’s world famous Algonquin Park. In this same vein, she has recently launched a new podcast entitled Algonquin Defining Moments.

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