Why is it that people often assume that a manager’s job is a manager’s job is a manager’s job? The truth is that management jobs are very different from one company to another. Close your eyes and imagine going to work for Tiffany & Co. How are you interacting with people? What’s the office environment like? What are you wearing? Now close your eyes and imagine going to work for Jamba Juice. Ask yourself the same questions. Are the answers the same? What if the two organizations were Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center and Cirque du Soleil? Or the Department of Homeland Security and Victoria’s Secret?
Your success or failure will be measured in terms of your work within the context of your organization’s culture. An action that earned you a bonus at one company could get you fired from another, so the more familiar you are with your organization’s culture, the greater the odds that you’ll triumph. Here’s how to explore your organization’s culture:
• Look at the big picture. Define the core elements of your company’s culture:
• Success: Success may be measured only by revenue or profit, but it may also be measured by meeting goals, learning, maintaining certain standards, customer rankings, or other measures. How does your company define winning?
• Time: Is your organization focused on the next quarter or the next five years? If you fail next quarter but win over the long-term is that all right? How much time is given for an effort to succeed before the plug is pulled? What is the organization’s attention span?
• Mistakes: We all make mistakes. How are they handled? Are people who err punished or celebrated? Do people rally to fix a mistake or step back and point fingers? Does the company learn from its mistakes or make the same ones repeatedly?
• Decisions: Are decisions made at the top and work their way down, or is consensus important? Are decisions respected or second-guessed? Is rethinking a decision in light of new information encouraged or frowned upon? Are decisions explained or defended?
• Risk: How is risk tolerated? Is the organization prone to bet the farm (as Boeing did on the 747 and Disney did on Disneyland) or are bets hedged? If you climb out on a limb will people stand below with a net or a saw?
• Ethics: How important are ethics in making decisions? Does the company volunteer the truth or wait to be asked? Does the company’s public relations department deal with crises head-on (as Johnson and Johnson did after some doses of Tylenol were tampered with), or resort to denial and euphemisms (as did the Peanut Corporation of America after e-coli was discovered in peanut butter made at one of its manufacturing plants)? Does the company consider human rights or environmental issues when making business decisions?
• Trust: Do employees trust each other or are you advised to watch your back? Do people trust what they hear from management?
• Formality: Do employees interact with top management directly? Do meetings follow Robert’s Rule of Order or are they free flowing? Do you have casual dress or is everyone in a blue suit? Does every office space look unique, or does the place look like a spread in Office Beautiful?
• Employees: Does the company really believe that employees are its greatest asset or are they seen as an expense? Do managers fight for employees or against them? Does management treat employees with respect until they do something to lose that respect, or does management disrespect employees until they “earn” respect?
There are no right or wrong cultures, but every culture has right and wrong ways of doing things.
• Listen. If you’ve worked for your company for any time, you probably can answer the previous questions easily and cite examples to make your case. If you’re new, you can learn over time and possibly make job-ending mistakes along the way, or you can ask questions—lots of questions.
Pose the questions as a request for advice (“This project I’m working on could go like gang-busters or really tank. What do you think?”) as opposed to a challenge (“Why doesn’t anyone around here seem to care about employees?”). Listen without judging and take in the information. Is the feedback that you’re hearing consistent, or does everyone seem to have a different take?
• Observe. Pay attention to how things are done. Does everyone seem to be using the same playbook, or are they running into each other in a frantic attempt to control the ball? Are words and actions consistent, or do people say one thing and do another? Pay particular attention to how people behave under stress. Let’s say you’ve been told that employees are the company’s greatest asset. When numbers are down, do you spend time at a meeting talking about how to downsize or does the idea never come up?
• Create a matrix for yourself. Most cultures are not clearly articulated. To make it easy for you to see the culture you’re working in, spend 10 or 15 minutes creating a grid for yourself. In one column, list the areas we discussed above. Then, add the following in columns beside each area:
• Use a few words to describe the prevailing culture (“encourages taking risks”).
• List examples.
• Note people in the company who are known to have these qualities and are admired for them.
When you’re done, you should have a good idea of your environment, and a handy cheat sheet to review when you make decisions. (You’ll have people to go to for advice and a precedent you can follow.)
• Embrace the culture or leave. Once you’ve identified the culture, live by it or get out. Any culture is bigger than you are, and you won’t be able to change it. Remember, you can’t teach a pig to sing; it will frustrate you and annoy the pig.
A proviso: If the culture isn’t clear (it has no consensus) or it’s schizophrenic (the culture values learning but discourages taking risks), it’s hard to win. The best companies have strong cultures that give you clear parameters for making decisions.