Getting to the bottom of corporate culture



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Coming back from a meeting with a CEO wanting to hire my firm, I felt uncomfortable, overwhelmed and a bit confused. This is not a common feeling I have, and it put me a bit on edge.I called my business partner Elyse Barry for a bit of coaching around these thoughts, and she crystallized something I should have known. She asked me to describe the meeting, and as I did, she suggested that I was feeling their culture.If I could feel this kind of negative energy after a two-hour meeting, imagine what the rest of the 400 employees felt? Imagine how BP employees felt as they tried to work through their recent crisis, or the working parent who surmised from the last company meeting that he was expected to put work before his family?Here is a test you can do to get a sense of where your firm's culture is. Call a meeting of random employees and have a facilitator ask this one question: What is great about your culture? Listen carefully; let the dead air sit there.Once they get going, you will hear one of two things - a list of good items or a list of challenges. If the list has more good things and you see positive energy, you are likely on the right track. No firm is perfect, and there will be challenges that you should be aware of anyway. However, if the list includes mostly challenges, complaints and negative energy, you probably have some work to do. If nobody offers anything, you have your answer.While your firm's culture is only one part of the success equation, it is a primary means to motivation and productivity. The culture of a firm is the tone in which we speak to each other, the sharing of values and a primary source of social belonging.Technically speaking, values, behaviors, norms, symbols and traditions shape how we connect ourselves to our environment. It is a built-in expectation of what, how and why we do things.When I met with the CEO, he told me through his norms, behaviors and values that this was a tough place to work. Let me be clear. He didn't say this in words. I felt it. I felt the culture.Defining workplace cultureWhen asking our Future of Everything panel if culture was important, the answer was a resounding yes. They also acknowledged that a firm needs to balance many factors, including productivity, return on investment and expectations, and that culture is a difficult thing to control because it is the sum of many parts, including the culture the leaders embody, the experiences that employees bring with them to the office, and the micro pockets of culture that are impossible to control in any real way. What the firm can control is the trajectory of their culture, and that can be managed over time if it is authentic.Culture is no small matter, and it drives the future direction of any firm. The best firms build their culture over time. It is embodied in their leadership, history and stories of success, the firm heroes, and the way people communicate with each other.It is likely that BP, General Motors and any other company that is recovering from challenges is critically looking at its cultural climate. If companies like these are not, they may survive, but they won't be as successful as they could be.Once I understood that the CEO I met was transferring his culture on me, I was ready to help. I never heard from him again.Dr. Russ Ouellette, managing partner of Sojourn Partners, a Bedford-based executive leadership coaching firm, is project manager of the Future of Everything. Core project participants on this topic included Rick Gallin, human resources director at Veeco Solar; Morgan Smith, director of organizational development at Catholic Medical Center; and Fran Allain, employee retention manager for the New Hampshire Division of Economic Development. For more information, contact 603-472-8103 orruss@sojournpartners.com.

 

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