#ExceptionalCareers Series: Enron and the Company Culture Factor in our Career Choices

* This piece is co-authored with Isabel Dover.

What can a play about the fall of one of the world's largest companies (with nearly $111 billion in revenues) teach us about the importance of company culture in the career choices that we make?

In 2001, ENRON went from being one of the most innovative global companies to one synonymous with fraud, misrepresentation, and embezzlement. Besides the negative cascading societal effects, the decisions of unethical leaders at the top also cast a shadow on the reputations of everyone associated with the company regardless of rank.

Reputation goes wherever we go and as we grow in our careers. So what can the Enron story teach us about the corporate culture factor in our choices of where to work, and how can we continue to make career decisions that reflect our own personal values?

In exploring these questions, we turned to several millennials who have become well versed in the pitfalls of ENRON. This April, a company of twelve Duke undergraduate actors will act out Lucy Prebble's award-winning play, ENRON on campus.

Through their involvement, the students have gained valuable insights into the decisions they will make in their own careers, and how they will judge the values of companies and corporate leaders. We asked each of the actors: "How has being engaged in this play changed your perspectives on what you should look for in a company or future employer?"

Here are 3 Key Takeaways:

1. Ambition can lead to downfall when it trumps morality.

"ENRON is a cautionary tale about getting too big for your britches and living in denial to feed your egotistical self-esteem. The story of ENRON reminds us that once it starts coming down, a web of corporate lies can fall just as fast, if not faster, than a tall tale about petty theft at a fast food restaurant. The difference is it takes a lot more people with it when it does. If you live in a house of cards, when it falls, it'll fall on you. It's normal to want to work at a place where you'll be on your feet shaking, moving, changing, and inspiring, not tied to the mundanity of a seemingly insignificant 9-5, clock-in clock-out, desk job. If you want that, go for it, and the best of luck to you, but don't forget, the rules of normal society still apply to you."
-Amani Carson-Rose, Class of 2017

"Ambition is a two-sided coin: while it's the fire that keeps you going and gets the best out of you, it has the evil ability to mess with other important skills like reasoning and morality."
-Devesh Sharma, Class of 2018

In setting goals for yourself, your career, and your company, it is crucial to maintain a set of values and morals that guide your ambition. Staying true to those values can keep you on track.

2. Asking questions about the greater purpose behind the work that you do is a key component to managing values in the workplace.

"The difference is really in the top of the food chain. Can I trust the CEO?"

-Emery Jenson, Class of 2018

"It is not enough to do your job without looking at a bigger picture. It has allowed me to realize that no matter where we work, it is not enough to have higher cooperations claim they are watching our back. Not only is it important to ask 'why' but also to understand 'why.' A greater goal should drive our work rather than letting the logistics of what we actually do mask reality. Therefore, an ideal company would allow employees to access transactions easily and most importantly encourage everyone to have a voice in the company's future."
-Judy Riviere, Class of 2018

By questioning and understanding purpose, you can constantly reconfirm the alignment of your work and your values. The core values of the CEO often trickle down throughout the entire company, so it is always important to consider: is the CEO trustworthy and honest? Do his/her values and priorities align with yours? Having a strong awareness of your own values will allow you to constantly consider whether your company reflects them as well.

3. Look for companies with a culture of transparency and accountability.

"The companies I hope to work for are transparent, honest, hard-working and reliable. Being all of these things within the company as well as with the customers and partners of the company bring about a culture of accountability, which is very important to me now. I want to work for a company with a culture of dignity and respect, one where I can proudly say that I know what is going on and how things work, and be getting what I am working so hard for without shady deals or depending on virtual software to know where I stand in the company."
-Harmony Zhang, Class of 2016

Incorporating factors of strong culture of transparency, accountability into the criteria of your prospective companies will lead you to companies that are aligned with your personal values. Working in such companies will give you the ability to trust your work environment and make valuable contributions.

ENRON, produced by the Department of Theater Studies at Duke, is directed by Duke Alumna and visiting artist, Talya Klein '02, and will run the first two weekends of April at Duke University.

So, readers, what are some examples of how you've aligned your personal values with your choice of companies to work for? What are other good articles on company culture that you've read? Please share in the comments and send in questions and topics that you'd like to see. You can also tweet at me @SanyinSiang and #ExceptionalCareers.