Two Weddings And A Funeral… Random Reflections On Corporate Culture

Actually it was an engagement party, a wedding and a funeral to be precise … but that didn’t have the same ring to it, so I took a little poetic licence.

I recently attended all three events and walked away with valuable articles into human relationship and that mysterious concoction we call “corporate culture”. All three events spoke to me of what John Donne told us 400-years ago: “No man is an island entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main.” 

The Engagement Party

A few months ago, I was invited to the engagement party of a current EG colleague, along with twenty or so other team members and their partners.

Later that night, I was chatting with the wife of an EG colleague. As we were all preparing to leave, she looked at me intently and said:

Adam, I want to thank you. My husband has never been this happy. He has genuine friends at work and that’s never been the case before. In previous jobs, his social and family lives were always kept very separate from his work life. At EG, there’s no need for that and it’s fantastic.

The first bell tolled.

The need to compartmentalise your work life and personal life is a telltale sign that all is not well in your corporate culture. There should be no need to abandon your “home self” and adopt a “work self” as you pass through the front door at work each day. The very practise is in fact corrosive to your moral and emotional well being.

The Wedding

A month later, I was delighted to attend the wedding of a former EG colleague. Once again about twenty or so team members were also there along with their partners.

As we watched the bridal waltz, bewitched and ‘ever so slightly’ inebriated, a current colleague – given to telling the truth even when sober – piped up with this telling observation:

You know, if I was invited on a Saturday night to a function which I knew all my work colleagues would be at, I’d normally be a bit pissed off. But at EG it’s the opposite, you actually look forward to it. And look at how much fun we’re all having.

The second bell tolled. 

No doubt the festivity and a modicum of alcohol had something to do with the back-slapping moment – still it was gratifying to hear. “It’s because we are free to be ourselves”, I replied, “no need for pretences”.

The Funeral

Soon thereafter, I attended my uncle’s funeral. He was a good-hearted man with a wicked sense of humour. Afterwards, we were invited to a reception where we reflected on and celebrated my uncle’s life.

There I met with a senior IT employee at a Big Four bank. I asked her what it was like working within a big organisation and she replied: “Twenty years ago, we had something special going, but we’ve steadily lost our way. Now the culture is all but dead.”  

That piqued my interest so I asked her to elaborate. She related the following story: 

A few years ago, I came back to my job after a year of maternity leave. The break gave me perspective and I was full of ideas and articles on how the team’s performance could be improved. So I organised a meeting with the head of my division who was a good guy. He listened carefully and I told him that I was keen to write a report on how a few simple initiatives could make a big positive difference. At the end of the meeting, he thanked me, sighed and said: “Don’t write the report. It won’t be well received. Leave it with me, I’ll try to raise the issues with my immediate report.” About a week later, he came back and told me: “I raised your feedback with my manager, and he said ‘Make it work as it is’. Sorry.” After that, I gave up and stopped caring.

The third bell tolled.

Don’t write that report. Make it work as it is. These words ultimately crushed the initiative of a talented, motivated, well-intentioned team member. And with it, the bell tolled for yet another Australian corporate culture.

It is a dispiriting tale and I felt dispirited. Why, I wondered, did that story affect me so much? I drew the answer from Donne’s lips:

Any [waste of human potential] diminishes me,
because I am involved in mankind.
And therefore never send to know for whom
the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.

The Huge, Weak Power of Culture

One of Donne’s ardent admirers, Cecil Day Lewis, once penned an unforgettable line about that small, fragile thing we call a “seed”: “what potency it has!” he marvelled, “charged with the huge, weak power of grass to split rock”.

And so it is with the seeds of corporate culture. They seem so small, fragile and inconsequential – far removed from the hard, competitive disciplines necessary for corporate success. 

Yet culture contains within it the huge weak power of grass to split rock. 

Culture is in fact the single most important attribute of any team precisely because it is all-pervasive and persistent – and with the right culture, a capable team will find a way to break through any challenge.

The Mustard Seeds of Great Culture

A great corporate culture is made of many parts, but in my opinion there are two seeds that every healthy corporate culture must sow:

  1. Recruiting by consensus. This means senior management must resist the temptation to foist new members on the team, without the wider team having an opportunity to interview and vote on the new candidate. I favour one occupational interview (2-3 hours) to test the skill and experience of the candidate, and four shorter interviews (45 minutes each) to test the candidate’s cultural fit. Ideally, 12-15 people in the team should meet the candidate. The team should then meet to debate and vote on the new member. You should insist on a minimum 70% “yes vote” before you allow a new member to join the team.
  2. Allowing people the freedom to be themselves. The more insecure the leadership, the more it will insist on blind loyalty and the need for the team to “follow the leader”. In highly dysfunctional cultures, this goes so far as an unwritten rule that “to get ahead in this place, it’s a good idea to dress like, act like and speak like the leader”. In fact, the leadership should insist on no conformity other than strict conformity with its core values and mission. Team members should in all other respects be free to be themselves. This leads to authenticity – and from authenticity springs idiosyncrasy, colour, humour, companionship and ultimately friendship. What, after all, is a “company” if there be no “companionship”? 

These are in fact the “mustard seeds” of great corporate culture in so much as they are the least among seeds (easy and inexpensive to sow), but when given time to grow, they become the greatest among trees (the most profound in their impact).

Many will decry my views on corporate culture as “romantic”, “sloppy”, “slippery”, “unworkable” or even “overly democratic”. Many shrill words can and will be marshalled against them. 
But I hear nothing. Only bells. Three bells defiantly ringing out.