Helping the Chronically Overworked Find Life Balance

Discover Why You Can Never Let the Company Down

Chapter 6:  Corporate Culture -The Invisible Hand of the Company Part 1

The good news: I got the product out on time after leading the team through twelve months of crisis product development.  The bad news:  it did not perform well in customer hands.  The only surprise for me was how surprised senior management seemed to be. Prior to launch, the executives would stop me in the hall to ask if we were on schedule, and remind me how much revenue was on the line.  I loved the attention, and I was going to make sure we delivered what they were asking for.  They did not say ‘We will support any decision you make,’ or ‘protect the long term relationship with customers.’

After launch, I was too depressed to effectively defend myself from the storm of criticism because I felt that I let the company down.  What a ridiculous thought.  The company isn’t alive, and can’t be let down.

What I understand now, that I didn’t understand then, was that the company had a culture of making the date, and if I hadn’t been leading the team, someone else would have been.  It was expected that vacations would be canceled if need be, and they were.  I even led a conference call for several hours on the Fourth of July to help make the date.  I was at a family reunion at a resort in New Mexico, standing outside in the one patch of ground that had two bars of cell coverage – just enough to be heard.  If I walked more than ten feet in any direction, it dropped off.  It kind of symbolizes the impact of corporate culture on workplace behavior.  In theory I could walk anywhere I wanted to, but if I wanted to be heard, I had limited room to maneuver.

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Do You Work In a “Just Make the Date” Culture?

Chapter 6:  Corporate Culture -The Invisible Hand of the Company Part 2

Last post talked about the impact of corporate culture on my decisions leading a team that launched a product way before it was ready.  We had a “make the date” culture, and there was not much room for dissent. Of course none of this absolves me of responsibility for the choices I made.  I also don’t want to make this seem like a bigger deal than it was.  I don’t think I or anyone else at the company was involved in the types of major ethical lapses that one reads about on Wall Street or in the Enron case.  This was more of the garden variety business as, if not quite usual, certainly not all that unusual.

In this chapter, I will be writing about the influence of corporate culture on a lifestyle of corporate idolatry.  And my decision to give blind obedience to the company certainly fits that definition.  As you may remember from Chapter 3, the major drivers of unethical behavior at work are unethical people, challenging circumstances, and an unethical corporate culture.  And the drivers of corporate idolatry are similar, people (Chapter 4), circumstances (Chapter 5) and corporate culture (here in Chapter 6.)

According to a survey by the American Management Association, 70% of respondents said that “pressure to meet unrealistic business objectives/deadlines” was one of the top three reasons for unethical conduct, which far outpaced the second most common answer, “desire to further one’s career” at 39% and “to protect one’s livelihood” at 34%.[i]   Another survey, meeting deadlines was second to the need to “follow the bosses directive.”

These answers have one thing in common – compliance, either to the peer pressure of culture, or to the manager.

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Why Good People Do Bad Things At Work

Corporate Idolatry Is Not The Same As Business Ethics 


[i] The Ethical Enterprise: A global Study of Business Ethics 2005-2015 (2005) American Management Association. http://www.amanet.org/HREthicsSurvey06.pdf  P 5

Learn What a Recruiter Really Thinks About the Startup Experience

Chapter 6:  Corporate Culture -The Invisible Hand of the Company Part 3

The choice of company is the biggest single determinant of one’s work experience.  This is particularly true in start up companies.  In this post, I’ll share the “startup experience” from the perspective of “Jillian,” a recruiter for high tech companies.

“People go to work [for a start-up] sold on the idea that is will change the world, to better mankind in some fundamental way.  In return, they give over the vast majority of their waking time. It’s not uncommon to work 60-80 hrs.  It is assumed that on weekends people will be working.  Which means that people are sacrificing a tremendous amount of their personal life in terms of family relationships.  If you’re in that kind of scenario, there isn’t much room to do much except work, sleep, and occasionally eat. 

They often sacrifice compensation, in that they take a pay cut to get into a company where they are given a big equity state.  In my 30 years of recruiting, the companies that have actually gone public where the [workers] actually made any money,  I can count on one hand, probably even less.    

Some of these companies get acquired. [Many] of the people who made the technology attractive to the buyer are let go and laid off.  [The remainder] end up working for the bigger company with none of the sense of being the bigger fish in the little pond.  

[Other] companies don’t wind up being able to make a producible product because the marketing people oversell and the VC people pull the plug.  These people who have gone through this major sacrifice are literally left with nothing, yet I see people doing this over and over again. 

Psychologically speaking, it’s extraordinarily attractive to be a part of this cutting edge technology, [thinking] if you try your hardest, you can make it happen.  It’s communicated and bought into all the way down the line, including the secretaries, the people who clean the office.  Even those people see that it’s extraordinarily rare that the company will succeed and get this big payoff. 

I think many people stay away from startups because they don’t want to make this kind of personal trade off.   What is your experience?  Is Jillian’s perspective representative, and does it have to be that way?

In the next post, we’ll return to the story of Harry T. Lobo, the Wolf CEO from Chapter 4.  What happens when a person of high integrity is confronted by a toxic culture?

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What Happens When High Integrity CEO Meets Toxic Culture?

Chapter 6:  Corporate Culture -The Invisible Hand of the Company Part 4

If you take a high integrity  person and put them in a toxic and/or unethical culture, which would win?  In other words, to what degree can an individual influence and change corporate culture?  It’s a question we’ll come back to multiple times in this chapter.

Lets start with an extreme example: What if Harry T Lobo, a highly respected and effective CEO we met in Chapter 4, were made the CEO of Goldman Sachs, a company thought by many to have an unethical culture. (Greg Smith’s very public resignation made public the callus and thoughtless way Goldman treated their clients. See this post on the subject for more.)  Harry, who is not known for his modesty, didn’t think he could change the company value system.  Harry told me “[It would] depend on the company, and how long the value system existed.  Goldman Sachs [is very big and is] proud of the way it operates.”  Harry explained to me that everyone working there shared those values, and the organization is too big to change by the CEO alone.

It took Harry five years to change the culture of the mid-sized organization he is currently running.  When he arrived, the company was full of “empire builders,”  with a “negative, finger pointing, aggressive culture.”  People who were resistant to the values he was instilling are “no longer around.”  Harry said that he let this happen over time, as people realized they no longer fit in they left, and people who espoused the values he was looking for were promoted.  (And see this post to see a case where Harry dismissed someone for being manipulative.)

This is a common theme I heard throughout the interviews I conducted, and is well described in the literature: People who fit best with the company values, whatever they may be, will tend to be promoted more quickly.

So how did Harry respond when he was working as a Senior VP in a toxic culture?  Did he change the culture, or was he changed by it?

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Understanding the Impact of a Hockey Stick Culture

Chapter 6:  Corporate Culture -The Invisible Hand of the Company Part 5

In the last post, Harry T. Wolf explained why he could not change the culture of Goldman Sachs if he became CEO.  And, we saw how Harry went about changing a “negative, finger pointing, aggressive culture.” It took Harry years to make changes, and he had the support of the board to make it happen.

Prior to his current (and second) stint as CEO, Harry was the Chief Operating Officer (COO) of a technology company in Silicon Valley I’ll call “ScorpCo*”.  During Harry’s first year, the company launched a complete upgrade to its platform – software, hardware, peripherals and third party components.  “I am intensely proud of what the organization achieved during that year.  [We delivered] it all, and had successful sales.  In most companies, you get paid it big bonus for that.  It didn’t work that way at Scorpco.”  Wall Street rewarded the company for making its numbers.  Harry was demoted.

The year was difficult – Harry had to defend many decisions publically that he did not agree with.  “I’m a firm believer that if you’re part of a management team that by whatever mechanism decides on a course of action, it’s your duty to carry it out with absolutely the best grace you can. I have always tried to take ownership of that decision, rather than place it as a third party decision.”  Harry had a philosophy of long term objectives, but the company was perpetually focused on the short term – “60% of revenue came in last 48 hrs [of the quarter.]**  It’s a crazy way to run a business.”   According to Harry “burnout was high” among employees, and he felt “sheer exhaustion, both physical and emotional.”

It doesn’t have to be that way, and Harry’s life got much better after he left the company.  The reason why he left surprised me.

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*ScorpCo is a fictitious name I picked because the CEO is a Scorpion.  This post from Chapter 4 gives an example of working for a Scorpion

** A hockey stick culture like this will eventually exhaust everyone both in and out of sales.

When Stress Goes Up, Perspective Goes Down

Chapter 6:  Corporate Culture -The Invisible Hand of the Company Part 6

In the last post, Harry T. Lobo, the high integrity executive we met in Chapter 4 who was demoted after a year as COO, even though from an objective standpoint the company met an aggressive set of revenue and product launch targets.   When Harry described himself as exhausted, I asked if the CEO pressured him by calling him at home.

No, he said “the pressure more subtle and psychological, the ‘you’re not really up to it’ sort of thing.  Harry described feeling “bruised and battered,” and at times questioning his own competence.

“It’s not as if I’m sitting around not thinking about this day in and day out.  If it’s still not good enough how the hell can I possibly improve? How can I be getting this wrong with all the work I’m putting in?  But then with me the grit and determination comes in, and I say ‘I’m not going to be defeated by this.  How CAN I address some of the issues being raised here?’  It means either going back to what you were doing with renewed confidence to push it a bit harder, faster, etc.  Or you could say, ok, I’m doing something wrong here.”

In my opinion, those very qualities that made Harry an effective CEO in his next position – loyalty, tenacity, self confidence – worked against him in this situation.  Sometimes, continuing to fight is not the right answer.  In hindsight, Harry understands that the CEO’s expectation of 15% growth because “the technology was so great” was not rational.  But at the time, when he was in the thick of it, just wasn’t possible to take that longer perspective.

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When Can a Leader Change The Culture?

Chapter 6:  Corporate Culture -The Invisible Hand of the Company Part 7

Over the last few posts, Harry T. Lobo went from being a successful CEO to feeling “bruised and battered” as COO at a larger company.  One reader told me that reading the post left “an aftertaste of sadness and bitterness.”  I understand the reaction – I had it myself when Harry was telling me the story, in part because it reminded me of times in my own career when I felt the same way.  By understanding what made it hard for Harry, I was better able to understand my own experience.

And what made it so hard for Harry? He was working in a culture that did not match his values, and he was powerless to change it.  For example, Harry believed in long term relationships with customers, but the company culture prioritized the quarterly number.  Let me say that again: Harry T. Lobo, former CEO and extremely effective leader, was unable to change the company culture.  A less capable person would have left, but Harry’s tenacity and self-confidence led him to stay in a toxic situation, thinking “I’m not going to be defeated by this.”  I’ve been there too.

I have come to believe that it is almost impossible for an individual to change the company culture.  Think about it: if it were easy, would so many corporations spend millions on “change management?”  Bain executive Frederick Reichheld outlines eight steps towards changing company culture in his book The Loyalty Effect, a process that takes years.

So my advice? Don’t bother to try to change the company unless:

  1. You are CEO
  2. You have the support of the board
  3. You have absolute power to hire and fire people
  4. You are ruthless enough to clean house.  (Marissa Meyer at Yahoo is doing exactly that right now, and I suspect it will turn Yahoo around.)

Unless all four of these things hold true in your situation don’t bother to try to change the company culture.  Cynical and hopeless?  Not at all.  It is liberating to accept the truth.  The energy going into change can be redirected into your personal life  or towards influencing your local environment within the company.  Or into finding another place to work. Chapter 9 Paint Your Environment will go into solutions for corporate culture in greater depth.

<< Previous Post  Next post>>  Life in a positive corporate culture.

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Is There A Down Side To The Free Lunch At Google?

Chapter 6:  Corporate Culture -The Invisible Hand of the Company Part 8

Shortly after the arrival of Marissa Mayer as CEO, Yahoo started giving free lunches to its employees as a means to change the culture and improve morale.[i]

Google, where she worked for many years is known for having free, very nutritious lunches.  It’s a great benefit and while I’ve never eaten there, I did go to the Califia Café, started by a former Google Chef. The food is fantastic.

One writer estimated that Google spent $72 million on food in 2008 .[ii] Why does Google do that?  Does anyone think it’s because they care about employees, or are being nice? (Sorry, I realize I am getting that snarky tone again.  Normally, in situations like this, I ask my wife read to help me moderate, but since she just got back from a business trip, I’ll spend my time with her catching up and let the chips fall where they may with the tone of the post.)

The benefits to Google include higher morale, a stronger culture, a talking point to keep salaries lower, and a way to keep people close to the office.

And it’s not just food that Google and other companies offer.  According to tech enthusiast Jonathan Strickland the Googleplex offers on site haircuts, medical, dry cleaning, laundry (complete with employees bringing in dirty laundry on the weekend), massage, as well as pools, gyms, video games and ping pong.  According to Strickland, the strategy is “keeping the employee workforce in the office more often. Give employees enough reasons to stick around and you’ll likely see productivity go up. Why head home when everything you need is at work?”[iii]

These perks are one way to address the difficulty of work life balance by bringing some of the life tasks into the workplace.  Is there a downside to this?

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[i] http://www.geekosystem.com/yahoo-free-lunch/  The only way to truly change this theme is for the company as a whole to embrace a new vision and strive for it. For that, they need happy workers.

[ii] Google’s Ginormous Free Food Budget: $7,530 Per Googler, $72 Million A Year* by Vasanth Sridharan | Business Insider| Apr. 23, 2008, 2:36 PM  Retrieved October 24, 2012  Read

[iii] How the Googleplex Works by Jonathan Strickland Howstuffworks.com. Retrieved October 24, 2012 Read

 

The Benefits Of Working For an Ethical Company

Chapter 6: The Invisible Hand Of the Company part 10

Throughout much of the chapter, I have argued that it is extremely difficult to change company culture.  It’s so hard in fact, that I don’t think it’s worth trying if you aren’t the CEO, and even then it may not be possible.

But the good news is that there is a wide range of company cultures.  One of the greatest myths about the workplace is that “everyplace is like this.”  That isn’t true.  It is true that no place is perfect, but there is a dramatic difference in the ethical climate between companies.

The business ethics literature describes an ethical culture as a company with a focus on the “wellbeing of multiple stakeholders such as employees, customers and community,” whereas a culture that encourages unethical decisions has an “everyone for herself” mentality.[i]

And how can you tell which type of company you work for.  To state what is probably obvious, one place not to look is the written code of conduct.  According to a large statistical meta-analysis of the business ethics literature, the presence of a code of conduct is not correlated with actual behavior in the company.  What matters is that the code is enforced uniformly across the organization.[ii]

So how are people treated in your company?

Are bullies tolerated?  Are vendors treated fairly?  Are the leaders held to different standards?  Are certain people allowed to get away with swearing while others will get talked to by their manager?

The small things matter, because they are clues to what will happen when the big things come up.

For a happier, more balanced life, the long term solution is to separate your identity from the company.  More on that in the next chapter.  But in the short run, the best answer may be to change companies.  In my opinion, all things being equal, it is better to work for a company that treats people well because you will be treated well.

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[i] Bad Apples, Bad Cases, and Bad Barrels: Meta-Analytic Evidence About Sources of Unethical Decisions at Work.  Kish-Gephart JJ, Harrison DA, Treviño LK. . J Appl Psychol. 2010 Jan;95(1):21

[ii] Ibid