Understanding a New Company Culture

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Avoid the Achille’s heel that trips up many new executives.

You probably heard “It’s important to understand company culture” more than once during the interview process. It’s easy to commit to understanding an organization’s culture. This should be obvious! However, committing and actually adhering to a daily commitment are two different things. Actually, a new executive’s missteps in understanding a new corporate culture within their first year is so common that Harvard Business Review published an in-depth course to address it.

It’s easy to kick “understanding a company’s culture” to the bottom of your to-do list, or believe that this is something you’ll learn by osmosis. You’re here to do a job, after all! Understanding where you can make an impact, important key performance indicators (KPIs) and who’s who of the organization should be a higher priority, right? Yes, and no.

Here are four key points to keep in mind as you plan your first 90 to 120 days to avoid dismissal as the person who “doesn’t get it”.


Understanding company culture in 4 steps

  1. Make a conscious effort to recognize common behaviors you observe. You may have gotten some glimpses of behavior during the interview process. Now that you are inside the organization, track and document:

    – Meeting frequency
    – When the workday starts and ends
    – How your peers interact
    – How your team interacts

    Take time at the end of your day to note some simple observations and review them at the end of the week. You will see patterns emerge.

  2. Demonstrate your respect for the culture and the company’s heritage – warts and all. During your interview process, you probably received many accolades and people fawned over your accomplishments. Coming off of this high, you will easily notice the organizational quirks, especially now that you are on the inside. Yet, the organization, flaws and all, ran just fine before you joined the company. You may believe that you came on board as a “savior” of the organization. But keep in mind, so did many of your new colleagues and people reporting to you at one time. They might not appreciate your observations or comments that “there’s a better way to do things,” weeks into your new role. Recognize the pride that your peers and direct reports have in keeping the ship moving despite the challenges. This doesn’t mean sit back and keep quiet. Get out among the masses – up and down the organization and across departments.

  3. Start your questions with “I’m curious” as much as possible. Many of your new colleagues will encourage you to reach out if you have questions. Well, take them up on it! It’s typical to make assumptions as you absorb lots of information. If you find yourself jumping to conclusions on practices and actions you observe, ask your colleagues to explain the why behind the what. Recognize that your newness in the organization provides an opportunity for you to question everything. You may be technically savvy, but culturally – you’re not there yet. And your colleagues know this. Take the time to honor the knowledge that your colleagues have and asking them questions, and you will gain respect – and buy-in – when it’s time to implement new practices.

  4. Avoid the knee-jerk reaction to inflict change. You read that right. “Inflict” is a proper word choice here. You landed the job because of your experience, accomplishments, and your ability to institute change. People want change, but maybe not your brand of change just yet. Those in the executive suite may look to you to implement sweeping changes, but enacting too much too soon may cause a revolt or sabotage actions already in process. Executives seem to conveniently forget the mandate for change, if it disrupts business. Aim for incremental changes. Take what’s working well and build on it.

    You earn buy-in from your peers and your team by honoring what they have worked hard to build. Address things that you know must change, and get perspective on why things are operating as they are. You may think that your idea is just what the organization needs, but there’s a good chance that it’s been tried before. To get past the old, “we tried that already” mindset, ask what was happening in the industry and within the organization when the idea was tried the first time. Find out who or what derailed the idea. Find out how much time and effort were put towards implementing the idea. Pay attention to how the information is communicated to you and read between the lines.


Moving forward with company culture

Company culture can be difficult to understand. The rules are unwritten when it comes to company culture, and it is constantly evolving. Believe it or not, your presence will impact it in one way, shape, or form. Make these four points a priority in your first 90 to 120 days to make gains quickly. You will better understand who the existing and emerging key influencers are that will help you drive real change in the organization when the time comes.

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