Let’s talk about corporate culture

Which is going to be difficult because…there is no such thing.

And I don’t know what everyone means when they talk about the “culture of a corporation.” Uber culture, Apple culture, Google culture–what the hell are they smoking?

I have credentials when I make this bald statement. In my life I have worked for one major corporation and one company wholly owned by a very rich man. Both entities were highly successful. Neither had a culture or a “culture.” I guess Gulf + Western, the conglomerate which owned Paramount Pictures where I worked, could claim some sort of cultural attachment — if they decided that motion pictures were an art form (I argue against this) and part of American culture. But producing an aspect of American culture is not the equivalent of claiming a culture for the corporation which produces the movies.

What both Paramount and Forbes Magazine had were profits. No culture, none hiding in the closets at what is now Trump International Hotel, or 60 Fifth Avenue, now incorporated (ha ha) into New York University.

Profits were and are the only culture in businesses and corporations.

Here’s my thing about corporations: they are a-cultural and amoral. In this instance I don’t use the word “amoral” pejoratively but as a straightforward fact. The purpose of a corporation (or company) is not to consider the greater social good when producing its product. It is to produce a product that will make a profit. That is its sole purpose.

Sometimes, as today with the NFL and the players who have been kneeling to protest injustice and civil wrongs, it is abundantly clear that the purpose of companies is to make money. If anything like the higher social good threatens to get in the way of profits, well, the social good can stay in the tunnel, out of sight.

A company that produces, say, canned soup may have attractive package design suggesting a warm, organic (whatever that means) atmosphere at the ole soup factory but its purpose in producing that soup is not to engage you in its corporate soup culture. It is to sell you soup.

Since the sole dynamic of a corporation is to make a profit, anything that its executives believe gets in the way of those profits is bad. See above, re NFL.

And one big thing corporate executives see as getting in the way is government regulations, the entire purpose of which is to protect us, the people, from the dangers of corporate amorality. Indeed, corporate budgets provide millions of dollars to lobbyists whose job is to convince (or buy) politicians not to regulate.

As a number of newspaper articles and pundits have just recently pointed out — while the current and one hopes short-lived Congress is taking apart Dodd-Frank — the idea that regulations restrict profit is nonsense. Banks have never done better. They are wallowing in massive profits, even with the so-called restrictions of Dodd-Frank and the Volcker Rule.

I’m now going to tell you a little tale about severe restrictions upon production, a tale I consider an advisory to executives who whine about government regulations.

A Little Tale

Once upon a time, a man named John Dexter was one third of a trilogy who ran New York’s Metropolitan Opera.

He was a brilliant Brit, responsible for stunning productions. His Met production of Benjamin Britten’s Billy Budd was astounding: the entire “set” was one half of a war ship, as if cut in two at midship, and the entire ship rose toward the ceiling of the Met’s huge stage, unfolding like an accordian, so we could see each layer of the ship’s interior, from the top deck to the prison cell at the very bottom.

(The rest of the story is hearsay, gossip and my interweavings of both.)

Dexter was notoriously cranky, difficult to work with. In 1976 or so, he decided he wanted to put on Poulenc’s Dialogues of the Carmelites, for the first time at the Met. It’s an opera full of those dialogues (and Carmelites) and, to me, tortured and boring religious and supposedly intellectual debates about faith and death during the French Revolution. I.e., is it better to flee Paris sans habit (never mind culottes) or keep your habit on and go to the guillotine. (Choosing god-plus-getting-your-head-chopped-off never seemed to me to be a big selling point for religion.)

Whoever at the Met was then responsible for budgets and expenses knew that Dialogues, an opera which was hardly going to be a cash cow like Tosca, was unlikely to draw big audiences. Therefore, the Met really didn’t have money in the budget to produce it.

Great roiling and screaming from Dexter. Demands, threats (probably). A lot of noise.

So he who watched the Met’s pockets sort of caved, in a sulky sort of way. “Well,” he sniffed to Dexter,”you can produce Dialogues but all we’ve got to give you is $80,000. Take that, you troublemaker, and make of it what you will.”

I don’t remember what the average opera production cost back then but it was more like a million than $80,000.

What Dexter made with that severe budget restriction was a work of such power and genius the Met is still using the production forty years later.

The curtain rose on a bare stage, with the nuns lying face down on it, their arms extended so they were visually crosses, even as their bodies formed a cross on the floor. You could hear the entire audience gasp.

The set? Dexter didn’t have money for a set, so the set was nothing. Later, a sort of convent screen grid descended from the ceiling and rose again; there was a chair or two and that was it.

At the end of the opera, as the French rabble gathered on the stage, the nuns walked, one by one, to the back of the stage, and walked down a few invisible steps until they were out of our sight, and then the sound of the guillotine, getting louder and louder through Poulenc’s gorgeous chorus of Salve Regina.

End of nuns, end of tale.

Here’s the lesson for kvetching corporate executives who whine about restrictions: if you have any gift, any imagination as executives, you’ll find inventive and powerful ways to improve your company’s products with those regulations, those restrictions.

Message to corporate boards: instead of paying all that money for lobbyists and politicians, why don’t you find more creative executives, sort of like John Dexter, who created a masterpiece out of severe restrictions?


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