The most surprising aspect of a SXSW Interactive workshop on corporate culture was how few people showed up and participated. “Beyond Ping Pong Tables: Building Better Companies” was by far the best discussion of that behavioral petri-dish we call culture I’ve ever attended. Led by a fascinating leadership trio, it condensed experience from the nonprofit, Wall Street, entrepreneurial and corporate worlds:
- Jessica Lawrence, executive director of the New York Tech Meetup
- Rasanth Das, co-founder, Bhakti Center (and former Wall Street banker)
- Vipin Goyal, founder and CEO, SideTour (and former McKinsey consultant)
The takeaway: Each of us is a culture cop. Culture is everybody’s business. . Our values model our behavior, which shapes our culture. It starts with the CEO, but everybody else is part of the check and balance.
All too often this becomes a cult of CEO’s personality. Vibrant organizations understand this and intentionally transform this misplaced focus on externals into an organization-wide investment in the values that shape people’s behavior.
Casual cultures break down under pressure, as do dysfunctional ones. I’ve learned this the hard way first, as a veteran of IBM’s implosion in the 90’s, during the start up bust of the early 2000’s and again with a small agency. Warning: Disintegrating cultures are very painful and lead to their own form of PTSD. Practical tips from Lawrence, Das and Goyal:
Hire for culture over competence; ask candidates:
- What books are you reading?
- What was the last thing you googled?
- What do you watch on TV/movies?
Think of the employee handbook as an articulation of corporate culture:
- Considering a new job? Ask to read the handbook.
- Check for vacation guidelines, maternity/paternity leave, and gauge it against your values
- How does the physical space allow for interaction, concentration or lack of both? Does it offer multiple functional spaces? Common spaces for accidental intersections?
The hardest: Spend time talking about culture. It may be your biggest success factor:
- Sacred cow bbq, where people list their nonnegotiables on post-its, prioritize and distill them into a list of values.
- Write a corporate obituary, what do you want customers, employees to remember?
Food for thought – and action.