Destroying a Company’s Culture

Former IBM CEO, Lou Gerstner, said, “I came to see, in my time at IBM, that culture isn’t just one aspect of the game – it is the game.”

Let’s take a look at company culture. We could look at how you build it, but since I’ve done that – including a list of steps – in a previous blog post (Corporate Values & Culture), I want to look at how you destroy it (for entertainment value only!).

You destroy company culture by not protecting it. You destroy it by not reinforcing it. You destroy it by not communicating it. You destroy it by hiring people that don’t fit.

Imagine that you start a business making widgets, say, Acme Widget Company. Almost immediately you hire three people – an office manager, a sales person, and someone to head up operations. You all get along great, the business is growing, you’re getting new customers, and production is kicking in. So, your Operations Manager starts hiring staff to run the widget-making machines. Wow, you’re really in business, now.

From the beginning, it was important to you to do things right, and your attitude toward the business was “We don’t need to be the biggest widget-maker in the world, but we do need to be the best.” You also felt that taking care of employees and working as a team – no, a family – was important. You wanted a business that was professional, but had a bit of a mom & pop feel about it.

Moving into your second year of business, as you walk around and talk to your staff, you get a great feeling: Everyone enjoys their job; they feel they’re making the world a better place because of the high-quality widgets you’re making; there’s lots of collaboration in the workplace; formal and informal communication is clear and plentiful; and everyone is performing well. No, better than well. The company is already turning a profit. You couldn’t be happier.

As your business grows, you focus on hiring. You need more widget-makers, more people to run the widget-making machines, and supervisors for these people. You empower your Operations Manager to hire – it’s part of your plan to delegate, and to give your people the responsibility to grow the business.

Your Operations Manager hires a Shop Supervisor based on his skills, knowledge and experience in the business. The new hire is GOOD. He knows his stuff. And he, then, hires more staff, more widget-makers.

Six months later, as you walk the floors of the business, you suddenly notice something. The feeling of the business has changed. You can’t quite put your finger on it, but you know something’s not right.

Here’s what’s not right: The Shop Supervisor was hired for his skills, knowledge and experience, but not for cultural fit. The Shop Supervisor does not care about the warm and fuzzy feeling of a business. He’s all about numbers. How many widgets did you produce today? He doesn’t care about communication, or collaboration. Just do your job! And he’s hired people that fit that kind of culture – more people like him.

Within a short period of time – just a couple of months – the culture of your business has begun to change. The critical mass of the business has shifted – there are more people who think like the Shop Supervisor than think like you. It’s building momentum, like a snowball rolling down a hill getting bigger and bigger and eventually knocking down everything in its path. Culture is like that.

I’m not saying that one culture is better than another – some could argue that the culture of your business was too touchy-feely, and it needed some focus on the bottom-line. But if the current culture is not what you wanted, who’s at fault?

It could be your Operations Manager for not protecting it, for hiring for skills, knowledge, and experience and not for cultural fit. It could be you for not clarifying, communicating, reinforcing, and protecting it. It could be not having a formal process or strategy for promoting and protecting the culture. If left to chance, who knows where your company’s culture will end up?

By the way, this doesn’t just apply to small startups, or even small businesses. Divisions of companies have cultures. Departments have cultures. Large corporations have cultures. Non-profits have cultures.

IBM’s Gerstner said, “I always viewed culture as one of those things you talked about, like marketing and advertising. It was one of the tools that a manager had at his or her disposal when you think about an enterprise. The thing I have learned at IBM is that culture is everything.”

What are you doing to build and protect the culture you want? Are you leaving it to chance?

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