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The Pinnacles and Pitfalls of Corporate Culture

Mar 03, 2016

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“Today, human capital is the most valuable capital in every company, no matter what industry it is in.”

So says my colleague Geoff Colvin, and I’m inclined to agree. In a world where many of the most valuable products can be produced in infinite quantities at no additional cost, where money is lent by central banks at zero interest rates (or less), and where innovation is the only thing that provides sustainable value, talent is key.

That’s why our annual Best Companies to Work For list, now 19 years running, has become our most popular franchise. Companies fight to get on this list each year because they know it will help them attract the very best talent. Potential employees refer to the list year-round to line up their dream jobs. It drives change: The best workplaces get a little better each year in a race to the top. All we can say is, You’re welcome.

But what defines a great workplace? It’s not just free food, generous benefits, and nap pods (although those clearly don’t hurt). You’ll see one word throughout this issue that attempts to capture the essence: culture. Today’s workers are looking for a corporate culture that values them and their contributions. That’s particularly true for members of the millennial generation, who are less likely to be married and less likely to participate in organized religion than previous generations, and therefore more likely to see their employers as a principal connection to society. Closely tied to culture is purpose. Steve Howe of EY tells us the two go hand in hand: “To improve its culture, a company must first define its purpose: Why does it exist, and what greater good does it serve?”

In our current print issue we offer a number of stories that shine a bright light on companies that have successfully answered that question, and others that have come up short.

On the positive side there is Publix, (push) where our own Christopher Tkaczyk went underground to capture why the 86-year-old grocery chain is so satisfying to employees. That stands in contrast to Jennifer Reingold’s story on Zappos (publishing tomorrow), which provides a fascinating window into a company that has always attempted to make its employees’ happiness a top goal, but has recently faltered.

Geoffrey Smith and Roger Parloff take a deep dive into Volkswagen (publishing early next week), a company whose culture badly failed it—and then some. We still don’t know how high up the corporate ladder knowledge of the “defeat device” used to fool U.S. regulators went. But if higher-ups didn’t know, that leaves the question: Why not? What was it about the company’s culture that led engineers to think they could undertake such a fraudulent effort and not let managers know?

Leadership is critical to culture, but fixing a broken one is no easy task—as Erin Griffith’s sharp analysis of Jack Dorsey’s efforts to turn around Twitter (twtr) (publishing early next week) demonstrates. Then there is Palantir (publishing early next week), which began life in the defense business but has readily adopted the “change the world” rhetoric of Silicon Valley and now finds itself on the knife’s edge in the battle between security and privacy, as Michal Lev-Ram writes.

So read our current print issue and take heed. Creating a successful business culture isn’t easy. But it is more important than ever before. We hope these stories will serve as a guide.

See the full list of Fortune's 100 Best Companies to Work For at fortune.com/bestcompanies, where you can also find job searching tips, career advice, and secrets from recruiters.

A version of this article appears in the March 15, 2016 issue of Fortune.

All products and services featured are based solely on editorial selection. FORTUNE may receive compensation for some links to products and services on this website.

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