I don’t want to get all academic on you, but the definition of organizational culture is the combination of norms, policies, procedures, attitudes and feelings that together define how a company operates. So why is culture important? A very positive culture can lead to a high-performing organization. A negative culture can lead to a very negative work environment and could put a company out of business.
Why is culture so amorphous? Don’t you just get what you get and hope for the best? Not really. Culture is something you can measure and change by doing certain things differently.
I’ll start with two examples, both from my time at Anheuser-Busch. We were starting up a new brewery in Cartersville, Georgia. The plant manager and the brewmaster had been selected and my HR group was working with them on the selection of their department heads. Once that group had been chosen, we worked with them on defining the values and culture by which they wanted to run the brewery. They described those qualities. We went out and did some benchmarking at other plants that were best-in-class to see how they did these things.
We came back and discussed what we learned. We attempted to incorporate those learnings into the plant’s operating philosophy. As we began to select supervisors and then hourly people we assessed them in terms of their ability to QUEST (QUEST was the acronym describing the culture they wanted in Cartersville). By all operating standards qualitative and quantitative, the plant was the best-in-class of 13 facilities. It enjoyed that position for a number of years. I haven’t been there in some time. If the successor managers have not given the culture the time and attention that the start-up group did, the plant is susceptible to the natural deterioration that occurs in any system if it is not maintained.
The other example was when I had been at Anheuser-Busch (AB) for about five years and got a call from an old professor at Columbia University who had taken a leave of absence and was working at General Electric’s (GE’s) management development center at Crotonville for Jack Welch. There were some things at AB that I was unhappy with, so I went to take a look at GE.
They sent me to GE’s Plastics Headquarters in Pittsfield, Massachusetts. I was scheduled for six or seven interviews over the course of a day. There was a person who was my host and he gave me an overview of the people I would be meeting with. I went off to do my interviews. I was about halfway though my schedule when my host met me and brought me into an office. He asked how things were going. I told him that I thought things were going well, that I felt like I had been answering people’s questions. He said, “Did you ask the interviewers if they had any concerns? Did you ask the interviewers if you had their support?” I gave him a strong no. He looked at me and said, “Why not?” I thought about it for a minute and said, “Well no one told me I should do that.” At AB that would be seen as extremely rude.
In the rough and tumble world of Jack Welch and GE, he wanted his managers to mix it up and confront one another and stay with that interaction until things were resolved. I did not come from or understand that culture. In the Midwestern world of Anheuser-Busch, people were very polite and proper. One would never confront someone, particularly in an interview. One of the marketing slogans at AB was, “Making Friends is Our Business.” If you don’t hire the person, you still want them to drink your product.
Needless to say I didn’t get the job at GE. I went on to have a wonderful career at AB, for the most part, except for those times when being able to positively confront senior management about things in the culture that needed changing was not an option.
Climate is one of those intangible and yet incredibly important parts of an organization. If you work in an established organization, it has a culture, whether you like that culture or not. You can change it. If you are building an organization, you will get one, whether you want one or not. I suggest you see it as an opportunity to create a culture that will lead to high performance.
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