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Money and culture don’t always mix…

That phrase entered the pop-culture lexicon back in 1996 in the Tom Cruise movie, Jerry McGuire. In 2012 it still perfectly captures the atmosphere of unchecked ambition and competition that exists today in many organizations. “Show me the money” is too often the mantra of a corrosive organizational culture devoid of loyalty.

An organization’s culture may not always be as clearly delineated as it is in Jerry McGuire. But, make no mistake, it’s there in every organization. Culture is like gravity – an unseen but very powerful force. Culture is also durable and enduring; once it sets in, it’s very difficult for anyone but an organization’s leaders to change its culture – and even for them, it takes time and concerted effort.

Someone seeking to build a satisfying career ignores organizational culture at his or her own peril. A mismatch between you and the surrounding work culture can throw major hurdles in your career path, and can make your day-to-day experience like slogging through a swamp. This applies to everyone in the organization – from a junior analyst to the recently recruited senior executive.

In fact, a primary reason for failure of executives recruited to a new organization is not lack of functional skill. It’s a poor fit with the culture.

Finding the right culture for you is key to your success in pursuing your life’s work –whether you’re operating within a culture that someone else has shaped or are striving to create an effective culture for the organization you run. That’s why it’s important to devote some up-front thought to the kind of culture in which you function best and excel; and just as important to identify the signs of a culture that will neuter your professional capacities and sap your energy.
I dealt with this imperative at length in my recent book, Howard’s Gift: Uncommon Wisdom to Inspire Your Life’s Work (learn more at www.Howardsgift.com), which drew on the insight and experience of iconic Harvard Business School professor and entrepreneur Howard Stevenson.

I’ve faced a few interesting “culture” challenges in my own career. And as president of a globally focused partnership development company I’ve had dozens of opportunities to examine cultures at organizations large and small. Those experiences, leavened with a bit of Howard Stevenson’s wisdom, lead me to offer these concrete suggestions on how to proactively address the question of culture – whether you’re trying to understand your experiences in a current job, evaluate a new work environment you’re considering, or assess the culture you’re shaping in the organization you lead.

1. Don’t focus exclusively on the superficial elements of the culture. Look past things like casual dress codes, early-release summer Fridays, ping-pong tables in the lunch room, or even tuition reimbursement programs. They’re icing on the cultural cake, not the cake itself.

2. Understand whether the organization’s mission and values align with its reward system. Test whether people throughout the organization uniformly understand its mission and core values or are simply spouting slogans. Then consider whether rewards flow based on those values or on some unofficial, unwritten, or shifting code of value.

3. Consider how information flows. The most effective cultures are ones where information is viewed as a common good and is made available to all who can make beneficial use of it. Conversely, information-hoarding cultures make internal collaboration extremely difficult and are slow responders to changing competitive circumstances.

4. Observe how failure is handled. A culture that treats mistakes as learning opportunities – rather than moral failings or evidence of malign intent – is going to be a better environment for someone hoping to build new skills. And a culture where leaders accept responsibility for problems or missed targets – versus deflecting blame downward – is going to engender greater trust throughout the organization.

Except for cultures at the extreme ends of the spectrum – slavery on one hand, and anarchy on the other – there’s really no uniformly “right” or “wrong” culture. What’s right depends considerably on the organization’s mission and the broader environment it operates in. But there are effective and ineffective cultures. And, especially, cultures that will be more effective and less effective for any one person – cultures that advance or inhibit career growth and day-to-day professional satisfaction.

Sure, look at the money they show you – but don’t join up till they show you the culture too!
-    Eric C. Sinoway is president of Axcess Worldwide, a New York-based partnership development company, and author of Howard’s Gift: Uncommon Wisdom to Inspire Your Life’s Work, just published by St. Martin’s Press.
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