3 clues that reveal company culture

3 Clues That Reveal Company Culture

There are 3 clues that reveal company culture: the people, the processes and the technology.

If you think this sounds too simple, then you would be right. See, the trick isn’t in learning the company culture. The trick is figuring out what to do after you’ve learned it, but that’s a topic for another blog post. 

In today’s post, I’m going to walk you through the steps I take to learn a company’s culture. This is the process I use when I’m called in to do a cultural assessment. The process to learn culture is not complicated, but it does take time and by the end of it, you’ll have a lot of information. This is why I encourage executives to take at least 2 months to go through these steps. Any less and you’ll risk not gathering enough information. Any more and you’ll risk alienating your team because of inaction.

Another suggestion as you go through this process is to keep a notebook for your notes. Believe me, there is no way you’re going to remember all this without recording it in the moment. I use OneNote because I can update it wherever I am. Plus, I type faster than I write. In meetings when it’s not reasonable for me to type away in front of the person, I take a photo of my handwritten notes and upload them to OneNote.

Alright, let’s dive in.


Company Culture Clue 1: The People

The first component of culture is learning about the People employed at the company. Now, you’re likely thinking “People” is a pretty broad term, and you would be correct. When I say people, I mean the following things:

  • The personalities
  • The skills
  • The education
  • The experience
  • The mannerisms
  • The treatment of each other
  • The communication style
  • The tone of voice
  • The humour
  • The language
  • The facial expressions

Those are the attributes that make up the “people” part of your organization’s culture. For that matter, these attributes make up the culture of anything. It’s a handy list if you’re a traveler or people-watcher. Figure out what makes people tick, and you’ll have them eating out of your hands in no time. But that’s a blog post for another time.

Next, you’ll make a list of people you’re going to meet. You’ll need a relevant sample of the employees. Include people you would interact with on a regular basis as well as a few others outside your day-today. The idea is to get as broad a perspective as possible. So that you have all the information you need to make up your own mind on the company’s culture. 

At the least you should meet with the following people:

  • your boss
  • your direct reports
  • a sample of your indirect reports
  • all your peers
  • all the board members (if applicable)
  • a sample of suppliers, vendors and partners. 

Your goal at these meetings is to gather as much information as possible around the attributes mentioned above. I have a set of questions I ask, but my all-time favourite is this one: “Tell me about a recent challenging project.” The answers I get back from people is pure gold. You can figure out their personality, how they treat others, and how they communicate with others. Pure. Gold.


Clue 2: The Processes

The next thing you need to figure out is the processes. Now, you gather this information in one of three ways:

  1. Ask people about the process
  2. Observe people following the process
  3. Experience the process

The easiest way is to ask people when you’re meeting with them. I like to ask different people the same process question to see if there’s consistency. Inconsistency in following or describing a process tells a lot about the culture. 

One word of caution. I sometimes find executives are too focused on their own area of the organization. They don’t make the effort to ask about other areas or about how different departments interact. When you’re attempting to determine company culture, it’s important to see the full picture.

So, if you’re in operations, you must know the sales and marketing processes. If you’re in HR, you should ask about all the processes in the company. The more senior you are in the company, the more you need to know about how the whole company operates.

Some of the processes I tell my clients to learn about are processes in:

  • the annual budget cycle
  • accounts payable
  • sales
  • marketing
  • operations
  • HR
  • customer onboarding
  • vendor management
  • customer termination

Once you know these processes, you’ll get an accurate picture of the company and its inner workings. If you’re looking to make changes, you need to know how the company currently operates. An added benefit of taking the time to learn and understand these processes is that it shows people you respect them. It shows them you respect where they’re at and how they came to be at that point. There’s nothing more distasteful to current employees than a new leader who starts making changes without acknowledging history.

By now your notebook is no doubt bulging with notes. Or, if you’re like me, you’re OneNote notebook is very colourful. In a future blog post, I’ll show you a neat trick I use to keep all my notes organized.

Ok, we’re at the final stretch of determining your company’s culture. By now you’ve gathered a fair bit of information about the people and the processes.


Clue 3: The Technology

Finally, you focus on the technology.

In the past, I didn’t give technology its own “section” in my cultural assessment process. But, over the years, how much and how well a company uses technology tells a lot about its culture. I’ve also realized a company can have the best technology and systems, and still have its people and processes stuck in the 1960s. Vice versa the company can have outstanding people and lean processes and backward technology. 

I’m not going to go into too much detail about which technologies you should evaluate. As you go through your tenure, the effectiveness of the technology should be evident. The main thing you’re looking for is how many of the processes use a technology solution. If the answer is most, then you should look at how effective the technology solutions are. I’ve had clients who depended on technology, but the technology was weak. The CIO had greater aspirations than he had operational excellence in that client’s case!

There you have it. The 3 things that tell you everything you need to know about your company’s culture.  As I mentioned earlier in the post, the process to learn the culture isn’t difficult. What’s complicated is figuring out what to do once you learn everything. 

One thing is clear, though. When you do introduce change, you’ll be able to do it in a thoughtful and respectful way. By the end of this process, you will have met with more people at your company than most new executives. And as a by product, you’ll earn people’s respect because you took the time to listen to them.

Now I’d love to hear from you. What are some of the steps you’ve taken as a new executive or employee? Do you have a process you follow to learn your company’s culture? Comment below and let us know!

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