Seven Questions to Assess Company Culture

Seven Questions to Assess Company Culture

by Colleen McCarty, VP Talent & Organization

Company culture has become a hot topic since Greg Smith shared his resignation from Goldman Sachs in an op-ed piece in The New York Times on March 14. In his 3rd paragraph, Greg writes:

It might sound surprising to a skeptical public, but culture was always a vital part of Goldman Sachs's success. It revolved around teamwork, integrity, a spirit of humility, and always doing right by our clients. The culture was the secret sauce that made this place great and allowed us to earn our clients' trust for 143 years. It wasn't just about making money; this alone will not sustain a firm for so long. It had something to do with pride and belief in the organization. I am sad to say that I look around today and see virtually no trace of the culture that made me love working for this firm for many years. I no longer have the pride, or the belief.

Whether you agree with the sentiment, find the whole story opportunistic, or a perfect opportunity for satire like this and this, I suggest this is a good time to perform a self-check on your own company culture. 

Let’s be clear on what culture is, Merriam-Webster defines culture as:

the set of shared attitudes, values, goals, and practices that characterizes an institution or organization,[a corporate culture focused on the bottom line].

In other words, culture can be defined as the “personality” of the company or how things are done within the company - as Greg says, “the secret sauce.” Culture tells people how to do their work. Culture shares clues about how an employee can expect to be treated. For example there are significant differences between culture of achievement and a culture of support. In achievement cultures, there are no points for trying; only results are rewarded. Whereas support cultures value every employee as a person.

The assessment for “culture fit” generally begins in the interviewing process. Think about it: there are  many qualified people but some candidates just connect with the organization better. Google "company culture interview" and you will see the best candidates are interviewing your firm and culture as you interview them.

Culture change can be planned with care and forethought or shift imperceptibly over periods of time unnoticed. In purposeful shifts leaders manage the message to mitigate disruption and ensure retention of high performers. When culture drifts off course at best, you lose valued employees, and at worst, you gain a PR nightmare -- like Goldman Sachs.

So where do you start on that self-check? Assess and involve trusted others to get input on whether your culture is where you think it is. Ask these questions:

  • What is the perceived culture within various levels of your organization?
  • How do your high performers describe the culture?
  • Do you find a disconnect between management's intention and employee reality?
  • How have weaker economic times and volatile job markets caused your culture to drift from its original goals?
  • Where does your culture attract or repel candidates?
  • How does your culture balance between profit and client-care to succeed in today's market place?

Wise leaders manage and protect their culture.  Answering these questions highlight your current reality and is the first step for recovering or enhancing the intangible elements of business success.

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