Every company has a unique culture. Compare GE to Nordstrom, Southwest Airlines to Fidelity, or The Ritz to Microsoft. Each is an example of an organization that has used its distinctive culture to drive an agenda. Why should you care about culture? Let’s begin by reviewing what organizational culture is.
Culture is a system of learned behaviors that originate when individuals react and adapt to their surroundings. The reactions and adaptations of the people in an organization–collectively and over time–form the organization’s culture. Culture includes the ideas, attitudes, assumptions, beliefs, values, norms, traditions, and behaviors that individuals in an organization share.
Who should care about culture? You should. Culture has a significant impact on the way individuals approach work every day. Historically, small business owners like investment advisors and financial planners may have ignored a concept like “corporate culture,” thinking it applied only to Fortune 500 companies. But attention to culture isn’t just for big companies. The more accurate question you should ask yourself is not whether your organization has culture, but rather whether you know what the culture of your organization is and how to use it to drive your company’s agenda. There is no doubt that the culture of the workplace affects productivity, customer loyalty, efficiency, and ultimately profitability. So if you haven’t paid attention to your culture in the past, it’s time to start.
By contrast, smart financial professionals are attuned to noticing the culture and values of their clients. In her June 2006 column for Investment Advisor, “Listening to Margaret Mead,” Susan Hirshman referenced five archetypes of millionaire clients: thrillionaire (who grab life by the horns), coolionaires (who are fond of expressing themselves), realionaires (“Be yourself”), wellionaires (who strive to achieve a life in balance), and willionaires (primarily interested in wealth preservation). Hirshman notes that while everyone is unique and generalizations are dangerous, these types of affluent people do share many characteristics and these archetypes can help us to understand the “why” behind a client’s decision making.
Just as paying attention to a client’s values supports the financial planning process, paying attention to culture helps develop a productive and satisfying workplace.
Do Your Own Dig
Assessing the culture of your organization requires you to go on an “archeological dig” to collect the artifacts that tell you about your culture. If you don’t happen to be an archeologist, a simplified approach is to recall the childhood admonition to Stop, Look, and Listen. Like a small child at the train tracks, stop to look at and listen to what goes on. You can learn a tremendous amount simply by awakening your senses. Next, upgrade your observational skills. Have you ever gone on a nature walk with a professional guide? While most of us see a tree, the professional observer notices the color, texture, and smell of the bark; how frequently branches separate; if leaves are parallel or alternate; and much more. With sharpened observational skills, here are some things to note as you begin your archeological dig.
The Physical Plant
Is your office rented space in an office building or an executive suite complete with support service? Is it a condo or a house? How clean is it? Are furniture and accessories up to date or worn? How welcoming or professional does the office feel when you enter?
Look at the walls in the public areas and in offices and cubicles. Are bulletin boards filled with charts, facts, and figures? Pictures of the family? Reminders to recycle or to turn off the lights? Mementos from an event? Signed lithographs?
The Dress “Code”
Is the organization buttoned up or casual? How professional, fashionable, comfortable, or revealing do people dress? Is the dress code articulated? Does it change on certain days? Do employees comply?
What do you hear when you listen to the organization? Are people talking to one another, collaborating on projects, meeting in conference rooms? Do you hear laughter? Is the day filled with conversations with clients? Is the tone of voice used on the phone with clients the same as that used for internal interactions? Or is there white noise or keyboard clicks coming from employees as they interact silently with technology? Is music allowed? If so, what kind is played?
What is the level of social interaction among employees outside of work? Is it constant? Reserved for significant activities? Or do employees socialize only at company events? What do people do at lunchtime? Do they bag lunch or go out; eat separately or together? Or is there a tendency to work through lunch? How much horseplay or practical joking is tolerated or invited?
When does work get done? Are there more productive and less productive times? Is work after hours tolerated, encouraged, or expected? Is the work ethic consistent among employees or is there a wide range of what is acceptable?
Teamwork Vs. Independence
Do employees collaborate or compete? Is there so much teamwork that no single person is accountable?
Standards of Performance
How high is the bar set for work performed? Is it always high, or does it depend upon what the project is and/or who it is for?
Which tasks or projects get drawn out and in which does everyone love to participate?
Rules of Conduct
Are there stated rules of the firm–such as how the phone is answered or number of rings allowed before it is picked up? Is sending personal e-mail via the company computer or surfing the Web for non-work-related information allowed? Are rules in writing? Are the rules followed, and if they aren’t, what happens?
Does the organization celebrate individual events and company success, or are there no celebrations at all? How, when, and where do celebrations occur?
What attitude do customers display to you and to your staff? Are they submissive, respectful, arrogant, rude? What can customers get away with and does it depend on the quantity of investments with the firm?
Culture and the Owner’s Values
There is another major factor that influences company culture. In small organizations, it is common for culture to unconsciously spring from the values of the owner. One key step in assessing your organization’s culture is to take a look at yourself. This list will help you get started with this self assessment:
- Do you delegate? What kind of work is delegated–the serious projects or administrative details?
- When do you arrive for work and when do you leave? Are you consistently at work before or after employees, or is the opposite the case?
- How quickly or slowly do you make decisions? How much data or input do you collect before making a decision? Is employee input sought frequently, occasionally, or never?