What you'd ask about corporate culture
Executive Springboard helps new leaders with their onboarding, so they can quickly make an impact and sustain that impact long-term. Helping an executive succeed can involve providing guidance on the functional issues they face. Equally important is helping them navigate the relationships and culture they encounter.
A few weeks ago, I asked for readers’ opinions on the most important questions that can be asked to understand a corporate culture. It took a little while to work through the flood of responses that I received, still longer to organize them in a coherent manner. I found eight themes emerging, with a fair amount of overlap among them.
1. General culture description
Ask a number of people in an organization to describe the corporate culture. Allow them to address this open-ended question however they see fit. Consider the patterns in the responses. What elements mentioned repeatedly? Is the description consistent? Is there a difference between the reality of the culture and how they would ideally see it?
Getting more granular, how is culture taught? Is it part of any corporate onboarding program? Is there corporate folklore that tell stories of the organization’s heroes and their achievements? How do their accomplishments match up with the company’s values?
2. Behavioral norms
Consider the behavior of the CEO and how it acts as a model for the organization. Does the CEO interact daily with people “down the line,” for example, with customer service reps or administrative assistants? Does the CEO know anything personal about these people, beyond their role in the company? How much is the CEO seen or heard? Do they stay in headquarters, or are they often seen in branches, plants or customers’ offices?
How much does the organization expect people to collaborate? Does the employee base frequently see leaders interacting, or do they just manage their own spheres of influence?
Is the organization one where everybody feels like they have skin in the game, or do leaders micro-manage employees? It was felt that bosses’ overreach at the expense of employee autonomy can diminish morale and kill creativity.
What happens when strong performance comes at the expense of corporate values?
How are exceptions to the rules tolerated? Are policies and procedures standardized and enforced? Would behavior that is unacceptable for the finance function be allowed among the sales team?
Are there any taboos… dress code, work hours, working from home, etc.? Are there expectations about behavior that extend beyond the workplace (e.g., social media use, personal habits?)
What is the performance review process? Is it formal or informal? Frequent, annual or irregular? Do you force a “grading curve,” or do you allow all to be strong performers with areas for growth (In Minnesota, we call this The Prairie Home Companion Curve, where everybody is above average!)
How do you react to major and minor mistakes? Are there disciplinary consequences? How does this impact employees’ willingness to give bad news and own up to their responsibility? Does the organization forgive and move on? Are there ways of gaining institutional learning from mistakes?
How does the company recognize, reward or celebrate success? What is measured and how are successes rewarded? Are the metrics long- or short-term? Is there a focus on revenue, profit, customer retention, cost savings or other factors? Is there consistency in what is measured, or might strong performance that was rewarded last year be ignored this year?
How often are the successes that are acknowledged individual rather than collective? In other words, does the culture allow people to be singled out for their achievements?
Where does the power reside? Within the C-suite, are all people equal, or is there an inner circle? If power at the top is unevenly distributed, is this reflected more broadly throughout the organization? Is this a result of personality, tenure, competence or a strategic consideration?
Who owns the P&L? Does control of the P&L impact how influence works? Is this simple or matrixed?
How is power most often used by those with power towards those without? Is it enabling? Abusive?
How does the organization’s immune system manifest itself? In the face of somebody who might be challenging the status quo, what are the common forms of resistance?
5. Diversity and Inclusion
Does the organization reflect diversity, or is it a “good boy network?”
Can you demonstrate times when you have engaged in opportunities to promote diversity and inclusion of people or thought leadership? Does the employee base resemble the customer base? What challenges, if any, does the company face in making employees feel included? As Professor Michael Gaffley of Nova Southeastern University recently told me, “Diversity is about counting numbers. Inclusion is about making numbers count.”
How does the company encourage mixing of different people, perspectives and experience? How does leadership learn from younger employees about new trends in the marketplace? How does the institutional knowledge of long-tenured employees be memorialized when they retire?
How do you walk the tightrope of encouraging different ways of thinking while benefiting from behavior that conforms to a set of agreed-upon values?
6. Decision-making and communication
How are decisions made? How much will senior leadership delegate? What are signoff levels? Does a plan cascade down or is it built bottom-up? How inclusive is the process for capex, product development and annual budget-setting?
Under what situations will the company invest time and money to develop evidence-based decisions?
When decisions are made, how are the communicated?
Does the company run on PowerPoint? Xcel? Email? Conversation? Does technology allow remote employees to be vital parts of decision-making?
If a manager represents their team in a proposal that is rejected, how do they report the decision to their team? What responsibility to they have to reflect the consensus of the deciding group?
How often do employees hear from senior executives? What media are used? What message is given? Would the majority of employees be able to state strategic priorities?
7. Conflict resolution
What and where are the common areas of conflict? Are these based on unmatched objectives between stakeholders? Incentives that are not aligned? Disagreement on expected outcomes? Politics?
How do issues get resolved? Is consensus sought? Are they made by decree or through an arbiter? How often does resolution result in a “win-win” situation? In one side backing down, in face of evidence it had not considered before? In one side backing down for reasons that were not data-driven?
What is an example of a conflict faced within a department? Of a conflict between two functions or business units? How were these resolved?
How much of the CEO’s job is deciding between two opposing viewpoints that cannot be resolved by themselves?
8. Vision and Mission
What does the company want to be known for in 3-5 years? What terms define that vision? Are they financial? In customer terms? Employee-focused? Shareholders? Other stakeholder groups?
Where did the vision come from? Who developed it and through what process?
Why does the company exist? What is its mission? What motivates people to come to work in the morning? How well does it relate to the whole business? Are there large parts of the company that seem to be out of scope, and how are they managed?
How well is the vision and mission internalized by employees? Can they tell you what the vision and mission of the company are? Do they find them compelling and achievable? Are they committed to accomplish them?
My initial intention was to provide a tight set of questions to get at the essence of a company’s culture. That’s what we try to do in a short conversation with corporate leadership prior to a mentoring engagement. But I was impressed with the passion and insights provided by dozens of responses. You had a lot to say about what’s important to capture in corporate culture. This become a sprawling exercise that fleshed out a very squishy topic. Thanks for sharing your wisdom!
Executive Springboard President Steve Moss shares learning from years as an executive and a mentor.