Culture and the Extinction Level Event

If every day at work feels like a Friday, then you are doing what you were meant to do.
-Alan W. Kennedy

Corporate culture has been a topic of conversation for as long as I can remember.  Whether it is a potential job candidate wanting to know how the company works to senior management looking to maximize productivity, everyone looks to the culture the company fosters as the key indicator of employee - and by extension, company - success.   It is also the most intangible thing to quantify and generally is only truly knowable through observation.  

At my day job we are looking to change our culture, completely ignoring the fact that culture in and of itself is not changeable.  It can evolve, yes, and practically it does although not always in ways the company may desire.  But changing it implies that we can completely describe it and can alter aspects of it at will.  This usually means through the application of new policies and procedures, which in and of itself implies a lack of trust in the staff living the culture.  There is an old saying that it takes a lot of ocean to turn the Titanic, meaning that we can't implement a new policy and expect a sea-change in the culture overnight.  Yet this is how the subject is approached.  Only with the perspective of time can we see how subtle and great changes are received.

Is it possible to change a company's culture?  I believe the answer is no.  I believe we can do things to help it evolve, but in the end it depends on those who live in our work "society" and how they react to the shifts to determine whether any given change is successful.  With that in mind, here are some thing I think we should consider as we try to change our evolutionary path.

Culture begins and ends with the people we seek to hire.  If those people do not embody the culture we want to promote, then we have failed.  Problem is, we spend too much time in the interview process either playing technical trivia games with candidates or in trying to determine talent.  While hard skills are necessary to succeed in any position, these are things which should be resolved in the screening process and not in the interview.  We should spend the time with a candidate to determine whether he or she fits the work/life ethic we want.  

After we have found the right cultural fit, we end up hobbling the new hire by pre-selecting their fate in some bizarre Calvinistic approach.  We decide for the new hire where we want them to work rather than where the person would like to work.  I will give a little on this - we can't always accommodate and sometimes we just need to augment the staff in a particular department.  But when there is room to do so, allowing the new person to select the team they wish to work on not only gives them a feeling of empowerment over their work life, but it also allows a team to gain members who truly want to be part of that team, which in turn breeds success.  Allow for the possibility, however, that a candidate may select a team on which they might not be a good fit - and so, keep tabs on their happiness and be willing to make changes as needed.  It speaks volumes about the worth of the individual to the organization.

Once our people are in the door, get out of the way and allow them to do what they were hired to do.  This starts with the tools to do the job.  More often than not we give the newbie the same computer hardware, desk chair, stapler and software as everyone else.  There are times when this is warranted - for example, I don't think a .NET developer would be successful on a team if the code he produced was written in Objective C.  Still, we want individuals yet we persist in trying to make them all the same and that starts with how we outfit them to do their job.  It is the technical equivalent of having a dress code.

As our new hires progress in the company, we have to consider the things we do to not only retain them but also to keep their interest.  Being productive makes a person happy, and that happiness in turn brings productivity.  Trust in the staff is key to creating the initial round of productivity, and that can only happen when the leadership is organic.  The best leaders in any organization are those who make the people who report to them feel as if they are the leader.  Subservient leadership.  This does not mean an effective leader turns all control over to the staff, but rather than the staff knows job one for their manager is to run interference and remove any obstacles the team member may encounter.  A good leader listens more than talks and convinces rather than commands.  

The way to get to this kind of leadership is to carefully consider how and why we promote people.  We tend to look at the amount of time people spend in a job as the basis on which the leadership potential is grounded.  More time must equal more knowledge and therefore more chance of success.  Our first step, though, needs to be applying the empathy a good leader possesses to determine whether the promotion is the right thing for a team member.  When faced with the prospect of promotion (and usually with the financial rewards that brings), most people will take it even though it may not be the right thing for them.  Leadership is earned and not bestowed, however, so moving someone up through the ranks based on time served and knowledge is a flawed approach.  Find the people on a team that others look to for guidance - and then decide whether that person relishes the role or simply lives with it.  Promote the natural leaders, not the artificial ones.

So, how do you retain those who are not necessarily being promoted but are otherwise productive and happy?  There are many ways to motivate people, from compensation (pay them just slightly more than what they would take to leave the company) to time off (when there's a Thursday holiday, give them a 4 day weekend) to education (send them to a conference once or twice a year).  Trust that your people know what is best for them to be productive, listen to what they need and make it happen - whether that is something as simple as healthy snacks in the break room to something more financially taxing like a bigger monitor.  Give information freely because it builds trust - and be frank when you can't give information.  A little knowledge goes a long way, and sharing with the staff helps to avoid the creation of workplace conspiracy theories.

In the end, how we approach our culture speaks volumes about our organization.  We can fight the evolutionary changes and risk extinction in the job marketplace or we can embrace change and slowly turn the Titanic.  The biggest mistake we can make is in assuming what we currently have is worth preserving as-is because that line of thought creates a stagnant workplace, and the staff will pick up on that like a vulture senses carrion.  Change will happen whether we want it to or not, and we have it within our power to effect positive and negative change.  We don't always know immediately what the result of that change will be, but erring on the side of empowering the teams and individuals rarely yields failure.  

The biggest indicator of success in the cultural arena is when any given staff member can honestly say when asked about the company culture: "I can't really describe it, but I love working here."