Do you work for a 'family' or the Marines?

“Steve Jobs was a jerk. . . . He cheated his friend and Apple cofounder Steve Wozniak . . . ; he denied fathering his daughter Lisa for years and implied that her mother was loose; he parked his Mercedes in the handicapped slot at Apple; he tried to ‘fix” the Silicon Valley labor market.

“One of Steve Jobs’ legacies is the revival of an eternal question: Is being a jerk a feature or a flaw of being an entrepreneur, CEO and/or leader,” wrote Forbes publisher Rich Karlgaard recently. 

“Earlier this year I sat in on a conversation between Jim Davis, the chief marketing officer at analytics company SAS, and a Silicon Valley startup CEO who had once worked for Jeff Bezos at Amazon. SAS, a private corporation, is regularly listed as one of the world’s best places to work. Employees enjoy its beautiful corporate campus, on‐site child care, fabulous food, doctors on staff, salons, etc. Not surprisingly, its turnover is 3.6 percent per year,” wrote Karlgaard.

“Amazon, said the ex‐Amazon employee, is the opposite. It ‘works the crap’ out of its people and suffers double‐digit turnover per year. Jeff Bezos is a tough drill sergeant or a ferocious micromanager, depending on whom you talk to. . . . 

“How is it possible that SAS, with its nourishing culture, and Amazon, with its merciless one, both work and are successful?

“The answer is that both SAS and Amazon are clear about their cultures. . . SAS’ message is: We’re a family; spend a career with us. Amazon’s is: We’re the Marines; challenge yourself with us.”

Karlgaard concludes that being clear about your culture comes down to leadership. He cites Dell as an example of a company that became lost, but now is found—through the decisive leadership of Michael Dell.

Karlgaard’s column reminds me of the great talk given to a very full house at the American Marketing Association‐Houston February 11 by Dave Ridley. Ridley is the newly retired senior vice president of marketing for Southwest Airlines, one of the most well‐liked companies in the country.

Anyone who lives in Texas knows that Southwest, based here, is all about customer service. As Southwest president emeritus Colleen Barrett said, “We are in the customer‐service business. We just happen to fly airplanes.”

Southwest treats its customers right and treats its employees right. Ridley reminded us, for example, that Southwest has never involuntarily furloughed or laid off employees. Cofounder Herb Kelleher said, “The business of business is people”—and Southwest lives that credo every day.

Ridley stressed in his talk that a successful company has to be healthy as well as smart. Southwest Airlines has chosen to be a family. Heck, its stock‐market moniker is LUV! Who wouldn’t want to work there?

Another option, I suppose, is to join the Marines.