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The secret of great companies is chemistry, not alchemy

Leaders can't dictate corporate culture, but employee chemistry isn't alchemy! Learn why corporate chemistry is within your control, unlike Rumpelstiltskin's alchemy.

5 min read


The secret of great companies is chemistry, not alchemy

Terry Vlisidis/Unsplash

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Rumpelstiltskin isn’t a name you’re likely to see in a “Best Business Leaders” report or up on a wall in the Management Hall of Fame.

It isn’t because he wasn’t capable; how many of us can spin straw into gold? It was more about his boorish behavior and how poorly he handled his, er, partnership with the miller’s daughter. If you don’t know the full story, let’s just say it didn’t end well.

Fairy tale character though he was, Rumpelstiltskin may be the world’s most notable alchemist. In medieval times, alchemists labored to see if they could transmute one material into another, the ultimate prize being able to turn lead into gold. But in practice alchemy was a strange mix of myths, mystery and mysticism, its practitioners driven more by superstition than science.

The author of one 17th-century textbook, a pharmacist, described alchemy as “an Art without art, whose beginning is lying, whose middle is labor, and whose end is beggary.”

Whether the alchemist’s goal was to find a universal cure for disease, discover the elixir of life, or crack the code on how to turn lead into gold, the practice was controversial enough to be outlawed in many European countries during the Middle Ages. Today, “alchemy” has come to refer to any sort of quaint, unseen, magical process of transformation.

Chemistry, by contrast, is built upon the scientific method. While its early roots can be traced back to practitioners of alchemy, chemists use dispassionate experimentation to ascertain the properties of elemental substances and discover how they interact with one another.

Chemistry has given us a host of marvelous developments, from penicillin to plastic, cocoa butter to soda water. Its promise is as simple as its practice is challenging: Mix the proper elements in proper proportions and good reactions happen.

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The parallels to corporate culture are manifold. Organizational cultures are often described in terms of their chemistry. People who work well together are said to “have chemistry.” Companies (and relationships) that enjoy “good chemistry” tend not only to be higher performing, but healthier and more enjoyable. Just as the right mix of hydrogen and oxygen can be refreshing, so can the right mix of people and processes.

I have a hunch, however, that when many of us use the word “chemistry” in a business context we think of it more like alchemy — a mystical process we have little chance of understanding. I’m always a bit stunned when I come across smart, capable leaders who are as creative as they are imaginative when it comes to strategy but dismiss their ability to affect their corporate cultures. Or worse, they neglect the importance of culture entirely.

It’s as if they think the secrets to organizational health are as elusive as Rumpelstiltskin’s methods.

But corporate chemistry is not myth and mystery. It can be studied, understood and improved. True, not all the aspects of a company’s culture can be controlled — different elements are going to behave the way different elements behave. But by understanding how a variety of the factors in our organizations (people, processes, policies, reporting relationships, expectations, corporate lore, etc.) relate with one another, we can set up positive interactions and prevent the more explosive ones.

The subhead of my first book, “When Growth Stalls,” is “How it Happens, Why You’re Stuck, and What to Do About It.” Companies stall for a variety of reasons, but it’s the second part of the subhead, “why you’re stuck,” that my research showed was the key in understanding “what to do about it.”

Most companies are stuck not because of the external circumstances that may have knocked them off course, but by internal dynamics whacked askew by the blow. If your team becomes misaligned, for example, that will manifest itself either through internal infighting or (worse) passive aggression. Whichever the case, it doesn’t matter how good your strategic plan is because it won’t be implemented.

When members of your team don’t believe in, trust or even like one another, your corporate chemistry becomes unstable at best. And when chemistry is off, there’s no telling what bad reactions will happen.

If something about your workplace culture is amiss, don’t assume you can address it via edict; corporate culture grows organically, not by command. But neither assume that you can do nothing about it; any garden will benefit from more sunshine, better nutrients, and careful tending.

Alchemy makes for wonderful storytelling, but it takes good chemistry to make a great company.


Each month, When Growth Stalls examines why businesses and brands struggle and how they can overcome their obstacles and resume growth. Steve McKee is the co-founder of McKee Wallwork + Co., a marketing advisory firm that specializes in turning around stalled, stuck and stale companies. The company was recognized by Advertising Age as 2015 and 2018 as Southwest Small Agency of the Year. McKee is also the author of “When Growth Stalls” and “Power Branding.”

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