Italian Trulli Philippe Barbe

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by Philippe Barbe
04 Nov 2020

I’m not exactly sure why (perhaps because I successfully moved from academia to business?) but I am often asked by colleagues, former employees, and sometimes recent graduates for career advice and what to look for in their next professional move.

In an effort to help them make the a decision that will lead to their success in a new role my #1 admonition is: “Pay a lot of attention to the company and team culture you are joining! In the long run culture is pretty much the only thing that really makes the difference in a company.”
Invariably, that advice is followed by the question: How can I figure out the company or team culture?

Well, you could simply ask and get answers like (usually stated emphatically):

We are a great company!

Our people are super nice!

We all get along very well!

We have a great work/life balance! (A great oxymoron)

Or maybe something a bit unusual: “We want to be good buddies who go together for a beer!” Yes, I have heard that one. In short, you get nothing of any real value that will seriously help your decision-making process.

What is culture, why is it important and how can you ascertain it before accepting an offer?

There are several definitions of “culture”. One that I particularly like, although not specific to corporate culture, comes from the Czech-French writer Milan Kundera which translates from the original French as: “culture is the memory of the people, the collective consciousness of historical continuity, the way of thinking and living.”

In the context of a company it is interesting to consider Kundera’s three elements in reverse order:

1.\ The way of living and being:

The company culture is how you are going to live and be at work, a rather important consideration.

Stated another way: “Culture is what is going makes employees do what they do when they are free to do what they want.”

A strong and good culture will make people doing things valuable to the company without them even realizing it.

A toxic culture will make free employees do things that will destroy the company requiring a lot of policing from mangers, which you may not enjoy. You want managers who empower you to express your best, not constrain you in a limited role.

You want a company, where because of who you are, how you behave, and what you think, you will not need supervision. Because of your history and who you are, not necessarily because of what you do or don’t know, you will know what to do and just do it. How does the sense of mission and purpose that is within you fit with the company’s purpose?

2.\ The collective consciousness of historical continuity:

This concerns everyone, collectively, in the company, and stands the time. It is not going away and it is not going to change overnight. It does not have discontinuities. It is there, evolving slowly.

This is what will connect you to what has been done before. This is what, if you remain 10 years in this company, will connect you from your first day on the job to your last. This is what inscribes within you the history of the company and you within it. It is what will connect you to your own future in that company.

You should care, because it is deep. It is what connects you to the very beginning of the company when it was just an idea in someone’s mind, be that Edison, Jobs, or an unknown someone who will take you as his or her first employee.

So far, so good… it’s clear that culture is really important. But how can get to know what the culture is in a particular company BEFORE you go to work there? The third element of Kundera’s definition gives us a tool.

3.\ The memory of the people:

Ask everyone you can find… interviewers, former employees, people you know at the company, suppliers to the company… to tell you what they know about the company.

Ask them to tell you the company story… its beginnings, its growth, its mission… and listen very actively their answers.

Do they tell you that the company was founded by so and so in the 19th century? Legacy is important!

Do they tell you that the company patented this, this, this, and that? Innovation is important, but not generosity!

Do they tell you that when this new technology came they embraced it? That company can change but not innovate itself!

Ask for as many anecdotes and examples as you can, have people tell their stories as far back as they can, possibly before they joined the company. You are not interested in these stories per se, but for what this memory of the people will reveal on the core behavior of people working there, on what is important to them collectively.

You can gather more input when you go on site. Actively look and observe closely.

What is the office like? How is the entrance? A standard one, completely interchangeable? The people who run the place have no imagination, do not care about their surroundings, do not see their company as unique.

Is there a garden where employees wander? The well-being of their employees and connection to the outside is important!

What is on the wall? A painting of the founder? Legacy. An incredible collection of modern paintings by renowned artists? Care for creativity. Slogans? Corporate BS!

In some sense, there is nothing wrong with any of these, even the corporate BS. The question is: Is this for you? If the answer is YES, then go for it!

While this advice usually answers the question about determining corporate and team culture to help people make a move decision, it helps them succeed in their new role because it is also a way of showing then that culture is so important that they have to contribute to it, and act in a way that the stories of what they will do will inspire future employees.

My answer is not only a tool to find a path, it sets an exigency to behave in a way that will stand in the collective consciousness of the historical continuity.