Helping the Chronically Overworked Find Life Balance

The Quick and Dirty Way To Learn Your Company Culture

Chapter 3: The Corporation, The Real American Idol Part 6

The writer David Foster opened his 2005 Kenyon Commencement address with this story: an older fish said to two younger fish “Morning boys.  How’s the water?”  After he swam away, one fish looked at the other and said “What the hell is water?[i]”  I love the story, because it captures a truism – we don’t notice something we are immersed in.  Corporate culture is the water of corporate life.

Corporate culture is defined as the shared values, traditions, customs, philosophy, and policies of a corporation.[ii]  We used to grill new employees about our products to get an outside perspective before they absorbed the biases of our organization.  And I think a big part of the stress of a new job is learning all of the unwritten rules of “the way things are done here.”  Here is a trick to learn the new culture quickly: ask to hear stories.

In their book “In Search of Excellence,” Tom Peters and Robert Waterman argue that great companies have strong values, which are transmitted not through “written procedures” but through “stories, myths, legends and metaphors.[iii]”  This rings true for me, based both on my own experience and from stories I heard while conducting interviews for the book.  For example, when I asked about company values, people started talking about the bullet points in the employee handbook, and were quick to point out that no one paid attention to them.  But when I asked for stories, I quickly learned what a company stood for.

At one company, there was a story about the sales rep who drove an instrument across Europe during the Christmas shutdown to complete the sale.  He even got the customer to unlock the building and take delivery so that the company could recognize the revenue.  This story was told more than once at company-wide meetings, and reminded employees an important lesson about the company values – do what it takes to make the numbers.  Of course the sales rep got a commission check, and it could be argued that he was simply acting in his own self-interest.

But self-interest certainly was not a factor in a story I heard from a former employee of Amersham.   a company in the UK that sold radioactive labels for biomedical research in the 80s and 90s. What does this story say about Amersham values? “Something went wrong with the [nuclear] reactor and the people on the night shift had to run into the reactor to get some stuff [so that it could ship to the customer on time.]  They got 10 times the dose they legally should have. … It wasn’t driven by commercial gain.  It was driven by ‘oh we’ve go to do a good job.’”  The Amersham alum laughed fondly as he told me the story.  It was clear that the story was told often when the beer began to flow, and is the type of myth that helps propagate company values.

What are the stories, myths and legends at your company, and how do they guide how you make decisions?

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[i] Transcription of the 2005 Kenyon Commencement Address – May 21, 2005 retrieved August 5, 2012.  http://web.archive.org/web/20080213082423/http://www.marginalia.org/dfw_kenyon_commencement.html; David Foster Wallace, The Guardian, Friday 19 September 2008 http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2008/sep/20/fiction retreived August 3, 2012

[ii] Dictionary.com

[iii] In Search Of Excellence: Lessons From America’s Best-Run Companies.  Thomas J Peters and Robert H. Waterman Jr. Harper and Row (1982) p. 282.