Fitting in Featured

8:00pm EDT August 26, 2007

Are you in touch with your company’s culture? If you’re considering a career move, are you taking into account that organization’s culture?

“Organizational culture is comprised of the assumptions, attitudes, experiences, beliefs, values, norms and tangible signs of the organization’s members and their behaviors,” says Dana Gibson, Ph.D., CPA, president of National University. “From organizational values develop organizational norms or guidelines that prescribe appropriate behavior by employees.”

During the interview process and upon joining an organization, a person will quickly sense the particular culture.

Smart Business asked Gibson how important it is to identify and fit in with an existing corporate culture.

Do executives place enough emphasis on corporate culture?

Most high-level executives understand corporate culture, but many are not convinced of its impact on their job. Studies indicate, however, that culture does indeed have a huge impact on an organization. Popular business books reinforce this. In his book ‘Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap … and Others Don’t,’ Jim Collins identifies one of the qualities of a great company as a strong culture. In their book ‘In Search of Excellence,’ Peters and Waterman note that a key to high performance is culture. In a study of some 200 companies over 11 years, Kotter and Heskett found that a strong sense of corporate culture is an indicator of stronger financial performance. The research is highlighted in their book, ‘Corporate Culture and Performance.’ Executives who don’t recognize the importance of culture will undermine their own effectiveness and that of the entire organization.

If preparing to transition, how can an executive evaluate the culture in the organization he or she is considering?

There are many listening and observation tactics that can help you determine the dynamics of an organization. During the interview process, look around. Look at the clothing, the types of furniture and how it is arranged, the facilities — the cafeteria, the boardroom. Listen to the stories the people tell and the experiences they brag about. What are their rituals? What types of symbols — e.g., the Mary Kay Pink Cadillac — do they value? Review the reward systems, the employee orientation and training documents. Is there a formal or informal hierarchy? Is it in line with your personality and style?

How can the executive determine if he or she fits in?

If you’re a hierarchical person trying to blend into an entrepreneurial type of company, it’s probably a mismatch. Understand your leadership style and organizational personality. What type of organizational dynamics are you comfortable with? On the other hand, there are situations where a board wants to bring in someone with a different style to move the organization to a different place. Senior leadership is responsible for strategy, and it’s almost impossible to achieve strategic goals without a culture that is aligned. If an executive is being brought in to lead the company in a new direction, it will require deliberate effort to change the culture.

What happens when it’s not a good fit?

We’ve seen several high-profile media stories of CEOs who have had to step down. It happened with Carly Fiorina at HP and Bob Nordelli at The Home Depot. In certain scenarios, the culture is so firmly entrenched that it would be near impossible to change direction. For example, if the Ritz-Carlton, which has been focused on the customer for many years, were to try to shift its focus to cutting costs, the employees might not budge. When culture is good, the organization stays on track. If it has to change, top management must clearly understand what needs to be done.

Do corporate cultures change?

Cultures develop over time. In most cases, organizational culture ‘grows up’ over the years without a plan; other times, the direction is very deliberate. Often, the culture is a reflection of the original founders and is very ingrained. Can it change? Absolutely. However, be cautious. There are numerous examples of failures. The most successful changes have resulted from long, deliberate efforts on the part of the senior staff. Some organizations try a revolutionary approach rather than an evolutionary approach. It can happen that way, but that scenario usually involves a lot of turnover — although, in some cases, that is the intention.

Obviously there is no one key to success. The advice would be to 1) set the mission and values and determine how they target culture, and 2) identify/build in symbols, training and rewards and communicate what is important to the organization.

Culture doesn’t change overnight, but it doesn’t have to take years. It depends on how strong the culture is and what type of shift you want to achieve.

DANA GIBSON, Ph.D., CPA, is president of National University, La Jolla, Calif. Reach her at (858) 642-8802 or dgibson@nu.edu.