Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Corporate Culture Vulture

As anyone who’s held a job for more than say, five minutes, can tell you, every workplace has a distinct culture. And finding a place where you’re a fit with the culture and the culture is a fit for you is as important to your workplace happiness as finding a Mr./Ms. Right is to your love life.

No, you’re not looking for THE ONE.

There’s no such thing.

But there are definitely places where you’re going to enjoy working, and there are definitely places that you’re going to despise.

I was fortunate during my full-time career to have only one job that was a complete and utter misfit, and that was Wang Labs.

I knew right away.

Truly, if my APC – the Wang PC that we dubbed “Almost a PC” – had been working on day one, I would have typed up a resignation letter.

That APC didn’t work, so I decided to soldier on and ended up staying 2.5 years. Yet despite having very fine colleagues (an almost saving grace), the years were just plain miserable.

It wasn’t the dysfunction.

If there was one element that characterized every place I’ve ever worked it would be dysfunction. You could almost say I pretty much specialized in it. I always assumed – perhaps incorrectly – that there was a parallel universe composed of fully functioning workplaces. But I wasn’t interested in working there. My big fear was that it would be boring. After all, aren’t happy families companies all alike, while every unhappy family company is unhappy in its own way? (Thank you, Mr. Tolstoy, for providing an insight that I could borrow from.)

So I had a very high tolerance of, perhaps even a hankering for, dysfunctional companies. Having interesting work, working with good and smart people, was what I was after. Sure, this theoretically could have happened in a company with a healthy (i.e., non-dysfunctional) culture. But this apparently wasn’t what I wanted out of my work life, and I traded off working in wildly interesting (and downright gleefully entertaining) companies (all of which, I must add, failed) for working in a well-run company that might have had a better shot at success. Or even – imagine that – succeeding. (Whatever that means…)

It also wasn’t the politics at Wang that drove me nuts.

Come on, people talk about politics at work as if it were something awful.

Okay. It can be. Corporate politics can be nasty, unnerving, and destructive, and I’ve worked in a couple of places where the pols might as well have been doing opposition research, conducting push polls, and running negative ads.

But politicking is also how ideas are advanced, challenged, strengthened.

Sure, this is an ideal read, but workplace politicking doesn’t turn me off.

And the politics at Wang – at least at my level – were pretty darned minimal: running for vice-president of your fourth grade class, rather than campaigning for the U.S. Senate.

No, at Wang it was the numbing, stunning, pervasive, crippling bureaucracy that got me down.

One characteristic of the bureaucracy was that all power emanated from the top. I was told that by the time I joined, things had eased up a bit, i.e., founder An Wang was no longer approving things like, say, the paper that a datasheet was printed on. But it was still pretty darned awful.

Having some bureaucracy is helpful. I.e., it’s good to have a known process for any number of tasks, and establishing and maintaining the process is going to require you to have some level of bureaucracy. Just. Not. Wang’s.

Given my interest in corporate culture, my corporate culture vulturism, as it were, I was interested in Paul Hellman’s recent column on the subject.

Paul knows what can happen if you find yourself in a bad culture:

Because even the best job—in the worst culture—will kill your satisfaction, and your success.

(I do need to reinforce my earlier point that you may well attain job satisfaction and a modicum of success  - personal not corporate, and thus not sustainable - in a dreadful culture.)

Paul thinks folks should find out what a corporate culture is like before you accepting an offer. He suggests that you don’t rely on generalized questions that are going to elicit vague, less-than-helpful answers, and provides some suggestions for the types of questions that will get at the specifics:

1) Stories: "Tell me about someone who's been really successful here" (not just based on technical skill, but on modeling key values). "And tell me about someone who hasn't."

2) Behavior
: "Suppose I worked here, and met all my performance goals for the year. What other behaviors would contribute to a high performance rating? What would get me a low performance rating, even if I met objectives?"

Good advice, but I have another suggestion.

It may not always be feasible, but, before you take the plunge, why not spend a bit of time in the new place.

This can be risky, especially if you don’t end up taking the job.

People, after all, have been known to blab.

But if you sit in on a group meeting, attend a company rah-rah session, spend a day shadowing your potential boss or potential peer, you’ll get a pretty good idea about what the company’s culture is all about, even when you discount the fact that your presence will likely having some sort of impact on everyone’s behavior.

I worked for many years at a small company that was wildly dysfunctional and plenty political, yet which had a culture that made people love the place. (This sounds crazy, I know. You had to be there.) Before we made a hire, we invited all prospective employees to sit in on our weekly Friday lunch, a kind of rough and tumble brown-bag meeting (with dessert provided by a different employee every week). If someone could make it through Friday lunch and still want to work with us, they were in. Or were joining at their own risk.

Did it work?


Once in a while someone who just wasn’t our kind of employee decided to join us, but mostly we attracted folks who were a good fit. Maybe this was to our detriment. Maybe we could benefited from a few different perspectives. But, on reflection, this really wasn’t our problem. People didn’t have any issue with pushing and shoving and making their ideas and feelings known. (Why we failed is a tale for another post. Or maybe I should revisit my book.)

Anyway, reading Paul Hellman’s column reminded me of just how important culture is.

And reading his column also reminded me that we were classmates at the Sloan School at MIT.

Yay, Class of 1981.

Which, by the way, had an excellent class culture of its own…

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