Aug 14

Corporate culture in a word

Can you describe your workplace culture in one word?

Probably not.

Liquid mercury

Like quicksilver, corporate culture can be hard to nail down.

Whether you work in a setting that lifts you up or crushes your soul or somewhere inbetween, you likely require more words to tackle the subject of culture. At least I did recently during a phone interview with a candidate for our open communications pro position – in fact, I needed a lot more.

Boatloads full, it turned out. We’ve been screening candidates for about a month now, looking for that right combination of skill, ability, drive and personality to join our team. I was wrapping up a 30-minute call with my standard do-you-have-any-questions-for-me question, when this candidate said yes, I do.

She proceeded to ask a series of very thoughtful queries, including one about our culture. I think I was a bit too long – and a bit too rambling – in my response, which seemed to jitterbug around the edges. When she had the chance to ask the sa

me question during her in-person interview, she narrowed her query: Describe your workplace culture in a word.

That’s a tall order. I am reminded of the response from U.S. Supreme Court Justice Potter Stevens who, in trying to define pornography in a 1964 opinion, was unable to find the proper words and noted instead “but I know it when I see it.”

Don’t we all know great workplace culture when we see it? It’s invigorating. Affirming. Collegial. Inclusive. Engaging. Uplifting. Demanding. Inspiring. Supportive.

Yes, at its best, it’s all of those – and then some.

But as one of the professors on the original interview team who brought me to Michigan also infamously noted: Every job has its own hell factor.

Of course it does. It wouldn’t be “work” if it didn’t. We’d pay our employers for the chance to show up.

Many weeks, I spend more waking hours with my team and our clients than I do with my spouse. We all spend a lot of time on the job. And when it comes to adding a new team member, finding someone who fits into your corporate culture is critical.

A dear mentor and friend once told me that by the time a job candidate got to a face-to-face interview, you knew s/he had the skills to do the work. What he was looking for was someone who would fit well with his current team.

In our workplace, this is referred to as the eight-hour test. You may be fluent in AP Style, tweet-speak or Google analytics, but can I see myself sitting in a room with you for eight hours a day?

And vice versa – can you see yourself immersed in our workplace?

But that would require me first to be able to articulate just what our workplace culture is. I’ve been thinking a lot about the concept throughout this hiring process – and, indeed, as our team has evolved over the years. We did an exercise at our strategic planning retreat (the real one in January, not our summer version) to distill our culture into a sentence or two.

Like quicksilver, we couldn’t nail it down.

Perhaps not the best confession for a bunch of wordsmiths. After all, we regularly help clients distill their essences – their corporate cultures – their distinctives – into key messages. But I find it’s harder to turn the spotlight on yourself. A lot harder.

I know what I don’t want our culture to be – and what I’m pretty sure it’s not. I’ve modeled our workplace as the antithesis of several less-than-uplifting places where I have worked over the years.

Of course, culture is a work in progress. And it’s dependent in large part on the composition of the team.

And even though I still don’t have a good response to the initial question posed above, I’m renewing my commitment to try – and setting a delivery date before our new teammate joins.


4 thoughts on “Corporate culture in a word”

  1. Robin Keith says:

    Another great blog post, Mary Ann. You have asked some very thought provoking questions…

    1. Brian Jon Greenleaf says:

      Thanks, Robin — what word would you use to describe Warner Norcross?

  2. Denise Kolesar says:

    Great blog … makes you think.

    1. Mary Ann Sabo says:

      Thanks, Denise — we should explore over lunch soon!

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