Recently, the famous dictionary producer Merriam-Webster named culture as the “Word of the Year.” I am sure most experts on Employee Engagement were not surprised by Merriam-Webster’s choice. Indeed, legendary management expert Peter Drucker was one of the first to get it right years ago when he coined the phrase, “Culture Eats Strategy for Breakfast.” While Drucker first said this decades ago, the words still ring very true in today’s business environment and workplace landscape. His seminal point in making this statement was that all of a company’s efforts on strategy will fall flat if the company culture is not sound and in alignment with its purpose and people. Likewise, if job candidates aren’t as careful about assessing the culture of their potential new employer, they will mistakenly choose the wrong new employer and quickly find themselves in job search “transition” mode again.
I learned a difficult lesson on culture when I was just a child. At age 10 and living with my mother and three sisters, I was illegally kidnapped by my father and brought from a lily-white Chicago suburb to an American Indian reservation in Northern Wisconsin. Neither my Father nor any of my new family members were American Indian; they simply lived on the reservation’s land. Since state laws differ about how to handle child custody cases and additional laws exist to protect Indian reservations and their inhabitants, the pending criminal charges against my Dad were soon dropped and my sisters and I found ourselves stuck in a cultural environment that felt like another planet. I was sent to a nearly-all Chippewa Indian grade school, where I quickly learned that my skin color had become my own cultural “baggage.”
As one of the only Caucasian students enrolled in the elementary tribal school, I was regularly beaten up solely because of my skin color. Recess was guaranteed torture. I used to spend this playtime hiding under a truck in a tucked-away garage at the end of my elementary school’s property. I started intentionally failing my math class so I was “forced” to stay inside with a tutor instead of playing outside with the other kids.
With that said, I made a conscious effort to assimilate to my new culture, learning and adapting as best I could. I found ways to diffuse the bullies, effective only some of the time. I learned some of the Chippewa language. I danced in the Pow Wow for the white tourists who would come to “see the Indians,” with many of them believing I was a little Indian boy. Most of all, I persevered.
I share this story because, sadly, it’s similar to what many employees experience when they start a new job; culture can either make people feel included or feel like the odd one out. A major difference with my story and the search for a new job is that candidates have a choice in their new culture, whereas I did not. Most organizations strive to uphold a positive, welcoming culture (or at least a culture that isn’t abusive), but not all are successful. That’s why it’s smart to get a great understanding of an organization’s culture before accepting a new job.
Before interviewing for a new job, people should think about what company culture means to them. What’s most important? There are a range of things to consider: values, ethics, ambitions, workplace environment or “feel,” diversity and inclusion, encouragement of fun and levity, dress code, workplace flexibility stances, trust, and much more. All of these cultural elements put together become an amalgam that I call the Invisible Corporate DNA of an organization. You cannot easily see it, but it is there.
London School of Economics Professor Sumantra Ghosal, coined it “The Smell of the Place” in his brilliant speech at the World Economic Forum. He describes “The Smell of the Place” as the context (culture) with which leaders choose to surround their employees that will drive the behaviors and success of the organization. Ghosal uses the wonderful metaphor of choosing either the smell of Calcutta India in July where he grew up (not so good), versus the wonderful aroma of the Forest of Fontainebleau where he lived later in life. Its message especially resonated with me because of the moldy and dank smell of our tribal school, which I’ll never forget.
Smart interview candidates can also take additional steps to make an organization’s invisible culture visible. You can start by finding former employees on LinkedIn and asking them to describe the culture of their old employer. Furthermore, you should make it a point to ask very pointed questions of the interviewers about the culture of the company, such as:
• Please give me three words that best define the culture here.
• Does the company have stated values and a code of ethics? Tell me more about them with specific examples of how they helped guide and guard the organization and its employees.
• What is the company’s attitude toward workplace flexibility, more specifically, flexible work hours, dress code, etc?
• What Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) efforts does your organization have in place? Specifically, how does it “give back” to the communities in which it operates?
• What efforts are in place to encourage fun and levity in your work place?
• What programs do you have that support the importance of diversity and inclusion here?
• Please share with me specifically how and when employees are recognized for doing great work.
• How often are managers expected to meet with their direct reports to discuss their career development and next career steps?
• How does your organization handle conflicts? Is there a specific problem-solving procedure in place and if so, does it encourage or discourage going above “the chain of command” or to the Human Resources department?
Also, make sure you look for signs during the interview process that clearly show that the company’s stated culture is not a reality (e.g., the company says it cares about environmental greenness, yet its facilities are littered with plastic water bottles, which take up landfill space for an eternity.) In short, be a keen observer.
After the interviews, ask yourself questions like:
• Were there any phrases or words used that would give a true peek into the organization’s real culture?
• Was there an implicit unspoken “tone” to the questions asked?
• How did the workplace environment feel?
• Was I treated and welcomed like a possible new team member or as a foreigner under suspicion?
• Was “The Golden Rule” exhibited by my interviewers (i.e., Did they treat me the way they would want to be treated, showing mutual respect and professional courtesy?
What my siblings and I went through on that Indian reservation was certainly tough. But it was also immensely invaluable. When faced with the choice of “woe is me” and victimhood, I chose to embrace the positive and the learning opportunities. I chose to recognize that, as a white male, I was blessed with having the unique experience of knowing what it is like to be a minority. (I also realized that what bullying and persecution we had gone through paled in comparison to what the Native American Nation experienced at the hands of the Europeans who invaded and took over their land and country.)
I chose to share my unique experience in my application to Harvard Business School (HBS). Of the roughly 12,000 applications sent to HBS that year, mine was one of the less than 1% accepted. I’ve always expected this result was tied to my unusual upbringing.
In the end, for many reasons, being kidnapped and working through an entirely different culture on the reservation, was one of the best things that ever happened to me. I cherish the loving relationship I now have with both my 81-year-old Mother and Father. Despite an occasional and normal familial challenge, our families have cherished a culture of love, understanding, and accomplishment.
As a new employee, becoming immersed in a dysfunctional company culture can certainly build character, but that’s not what people are usually seeking in a new job. If you want to feel happy, comfortable, secure, valued, and avoid unnecessary stress, taking a hard look at culture is your smartest option.
If you currently find yourself in a culture that’s not up to your standards, don’t despair. One of my favorite sayings of all time comes from the movie The Exotic Marigold Hotel: “In India, we have a saying: ‘Everything will be alright in the end.’ So if it’s not alright, it is not yet the end.”