Values Story

How one story, passed through generations, created Silicon Valley

(First published in SMART COMPANY - 13th December 2018)

Silicon Valley Splash Image.JPG

In the early days of the Hewlett Packard Company (HP), co-founder Bill Hewlett came to work on a weekend and found the equipment storeroom locked. He smashed the door open with a fire axe and left a note on the door insisting it never be locked again because HP trusts its peopleThat’s a values story, and one of the most consequential stories in business.

How did Silicon Valley become the most productive centre for business on earth? What’s so special about a tiny strip of US west coast that it can generate more wealth than most countries? Part of the answer lies in the values espoused by that HP story.

History of the Valley

Hewlett Packard was founded in 1939 in Palo Alto, in the Santa Clara Valley south of San Francisco, well before the word ‘Silicon’ replaced ‘Santa Clara’. HP made electrical test equipment including one of the first commercial oscilloscopes. Their products became the tech equivalent of selling picks and shovels to Californian gold rush miners a hundred years earlier.

In 1956, William Shockley, the Nobel Prize-winning co-inventor of the electronic transistor, moved from New Jersey to Mountain View, California to start Shockley Semiconductor Laboratory and to live closer to his ailing mother in rural Palo Alto. Shockley’s company was the first to commercialise silicon transistors.

A better scientist than he was a people manager, Shockley’s management style was described as domineering and paranoid. In 1957 a group of his staff, the so-called ‘Traitorous Eight’, left to found Fairchild Semiconductor and Shockley’s company failed.

Fairchild was the original silicon chip success story and its founders went on to start more than 20 ‘Fairchildren’, including Intel, AMD and National Semi-conductor. And the Santa Clara Valley became Silicon Valley.

Silicon chips powered the computer age which in turn spawned the software industry. Today the Valley is home to tech giants Apple, Google, Facebook, Cisco and Tesla. Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak first met a 16-year old Steve Jobs when they were working at HP, by the way.

Managing creativity

In the years following World War II, command and control management prevailed. Workers clocked on and off each day and the manager’s role was to ensure compliance of workers that could not be trusted. HP was one of the first companies to appreciate you could not command creativity or control worker motivation. The founder of modern management Peter Drucker coined the term ‘knowledge worker’ in 1959 to describe ‘non-routine’ problem-solving that requires a combination of thinking modes.

The management style at HP was eventually codified in a pamphlet in 1975. ‘The HP way’ described the way HP people should treat each other, their customers and their partners: belief in people, freedom, respect, dignity, individual self-esteem, recognition, sense of achievement, participation, security, permanence, development of people, personal worry protection (insurance), informality, enthusiasm, shared benefits and responsibility were all featured. It’s important to recognise the stories came first, and then the document.

Forty years later, a 2014 survey by Accenture compared attitudes to work and success of 600 Silicon Valley workers to workers in mainstream America. Difference factors were grouped in ambiguous value-pairs with Valley workers being more laid back yet more ready for action, more committed yet more independent, more competitive yet more cooperative, more pragmatic yet more optimistic and more extrinsically motivated and yet more intrinsically fulfilled.

Stories create the values

But company and industry values cannot be merely mandated. Values must be demonstrated. Leaders are watched closely and the stories of when they surprise us travel like wildfire. A story that shows how a leader behaves when tested is worth more than any number of corporate values statements because employees and customers are influenced by what leaders do, not what they say or write.

Taglines and mission statements mean nothing. A true story means everything. When a leader demonstrates the values of their company through storyable action — we call that story triggering — those values become part of company lore and employees and customers follow.

It’s not an overstatement to say that the fire-axe story helped create HP, one of the greatest companies of the 20th century, which in turn spawned the technology powerhouse of Silicon Valley.

The Bus

When we practise ''who have I helped' stories in our Growth in Focus story workshops most attendees tell business stories but occasionally a personal story is told which entrances the group.

Here is an example from workshop attendee Warren:

At various times in Warren's life he has taken up running to maintain his fitness.

While still living in South Africa in the late nineties, he determined to get up at six each morning and go for a run.

Part of the route that Warren ran each morning was along a wide but quiet two-lane straight road.

For comfort, he avoided the uneven gravel next to the road and ran on the tarmac edge. Warren ran on the opposite side of the road so that he could see approaching vehicles.

In the distance Warren saw an oncoming bus.

Since the oncoming two lanes were wide and clear, Warren assumed that the bus would move aside to give him space as he ran along the edge of the road.

But the bus did not move aside. Instead it passed so close that Warren was almost hit by the mirror and he was forced onto the gravel to avoid being run over. As the bus passed, Warren angrily turned around and raised his finger to give the driver the "bird".

As he continued running, Warren thought about what had happened and his own reaction.

He thought it likely that the African driver, who had no doubt struggled to make a living through the Apartheid era, resented having to move over for a young white person who could afford the luxury of running on the road for fitness.

Furthermore, Warren reasoned that his own angry reaction would in no way change the driver's attitude.

In an instant Warren resolved to not be that angry person.

The next morning, 6 am, Warren was running down the same stretch of empty road when in the distance appeared the same bus, obviously on a regular route. Warren maintained his position on the side of the road but as the bus approached he smiled and waved to the driver.

Again he was nearly run off the road.

Next morning same thing, Warren smiled and waved and the bus nearly ran him down.

But the next day when Warren smiled and waved there was a slight wave of one hand from the driver, and the bus didn't pass quite so close.

After that Warren and the bus driver would smile and wave to each other each morning and eventually the bus steered so far from Warren that it was almost in the oncoming traffic.


Company: Personal

Source: As told by Warren Nel at a Growth in Focus Story Workshop 2016


Story Type: Values; Personal; Who have we helped

Labels: Values; Beliefs; Control; Personal


For Story Students

The Setting: South Africa when Warren was on one of his fitness kicks

The Complications: The oncoming bus neartly hit Warren

The Turning Point: Warren decided not to be the angry victim, rather to be a smiling friend to the bus driver

The Resolution: Warren and the bus driver became waving and smiling friends on Warren's morning runs

The Point of the Story: Warren and the bus driver became waving and smiling friends on Warren's morning runs

How to use this story: This is a story about personal values and how setting standards for your own behaviour can positively influence others. As Warren says it is about reversing the HAVE --> DO ---> BE sequence

Deciding what you want to BE influences what you DO which in turn leads to what you HAVE


Service Recovery after Disaster - getting service back on track

The radio networks that allow communication between train drivers and central control rooms are critical to safety infrastructure. If the radios fail, trains cannot operate.

On May 2nd 2004, the Siemens-supplied train radio system had a network-wide failure which lasted several hours. Fortunately the outage occurred on a Sunday - if it happened on any other day, there would have been chaos on the entire rail network.

Siemens state manager John Chapman, realising the critical nature of this incident, rushed to the Railcorp control room and worked with the Railcorp CEO to schedule buses to ensure minimal passenger disruption.

Finally, when the radio network was restored, John turned to the CEO and said "this is going to cost us isn't it?".

The CEO's response was "let's split the bill".

What could have been a very expensive litigious issue was solved with a handshake because John had given up his Sunday and worked with his customer to return them to normal operations.

You can have great service but your service quality is only truly tested when you are in a service recovery situation.



: Siemens and Railcorp


: Mike Adams conversations with former NSW Siemens state manager John Chapman


Story Type

: Values


For Story Students

The Setting

: 2nd May 2004, Sydney, Australia, Citylink Metro rail system

The Complications

: The train radio system failed for several hours which stopped the entire train network. Siemens was the supplier of the train radio equipment and Railcorp was the train operator

The Turning Point

: Siemens and Railcorp worked over the weekend to schedule buses while the radio network was being repaired

The Resolution

: The Railcorp CEO agreed to split the difference on the cost of the failure

The Point of the Story

: The Railcorp CEO agreed to split the difference on the cost of the failure

How to use this story

: When talking about Service and service recovery


HP - We trust our people

Hewlett Packard is a 'storied' company and famous for its 'trusting' corporate culture. Here is one of the stories that created that culture.

Every company veteran knows the legend of how one of the company founders, Bill Hewlett, came in one weekend to work and found the equipment storeroom locked and how he broke it open with a fire axe and left a note insisting that it not be locked again because HP trusts its people**.

A story like this that shows how a leader behaves is worth far more than any corporate mission or values statements. Employees are influenced mostly by what leaders do not what they say or write.


Company: HP


Story Type: Values


For Story Students

The Setting: Dave Packard working on a project on the weekend canot access the required tools because the tools are locked up

The Complications: The equipment stireroom was locked and weekend staff could not work

The Turning Point: Bill Hewlett broke into the storeroom with an axe

The Resolution: The weekend workers could work but more importantly Hewlett left a lasting legacy about how HP people should treay each other.

The Point of the Story: The weekend workers could work but more importantly Hewlett left a lasting legacy about how HP people should treat each other.

How to use this story: When discussing corporate vales and trust