The Cracks in the Cogency of Corporate Culture

in The Money Slant by

*Describe the culture here” is a question I like to ask in interviews. Like it or not, most of the places you work will have a culture. I was told once that I should try to fit into the culture where I worked, and my unstated response was that if nepotism and pilfering were the corporate culture, I would just as soon go elsewhere. Looking back upon it, I think that I was supposed to give credit to the solutions I devised to the group. The only problem with that scenario from my perspective was that when it came to the application of any solution, I was the one who would be working overtime, or coming in on my day off. It was strongly in my interest to solve the problems before they arose, if simply to keep from spending my life working overtime addressing problems created by other managers.

The other college graduates at the firm had more important and more valuable degrees than mine, therefore they had strict limits on how much time they spent in the office as well as tasks that were stringently off-limits for them. College trained me how to think, how to take the available information, explain it, and devise a solution; exactly what one of my college advisors told me that I was very good at doing. College apparently trained some of the others in the firm to avoid work, purloin ideas and claim them as their own, and pretend that they were working while playing golf, talents worthy of salaries three times that of mine.

Whereas anywhere else in the business world, my willingness to roll up my sleeves and do any task that was required would be a sign of character that built leadership, it was viewed as poor leadership at that firm. All of my subordinates knowing that I was willing to take on any task of theirs wasn’t admirable, at least to my manager, but then, they had wacky ideas of leadership. I guess we didn’t read the same textbooks.

The New Nepotism

The corporate culture respected the valuable skills of hiring and promoting members of your family or close friends and making sure that you were identified as the key person in a solution, and nowhere near the cause of problems, even if you were, in fact, the person that made the ill-informed decision that caused the problem. The management looked at numbers all of the time, even when the numbers didn’t reflect reality.

The creation of many problems resided in the numbers, or more specifically, making decisions on numbers that didn’t reflect reality”

The creation of many problems resided in the numbers, or more specifically, making decisions on numbers that didn’t reflect reality, but few of the managing staff were capable of drawing that conclusion, and the older manager who pointed out the errors of management by numbers was banished to an offsite warehouse, and came to the C-Suite by invitation only. The warehouse wasn’t too bad for him, as he cherry-picked his staff, taking one of his old friends with him; after all, he did retain the part of the culture of hiring your pals. Few things build loyalty more than hiring your pal and giving them a cushy job. It’s just business. Networking is the new nepotism. Not that nepotism isn’t still going on, mind you, I just can’t comment further on that for reasons of a legal and career nature.

The Rise of Corporate Culture

Corporate culture is a big deal nowadays. Many companies value their corporate culture as much as their profits and losses. Amazon recently bought up Whole Foods, and, as I noted, the corporate culture of Amazon versus the culture of Whole Foods could be compared to the First Church of Satan meets the Puritans. Recent reports have Whole Foods employees trying to start unions and taking other measures due to their dislike (to put it nicely) of the policies of Amazon, not the least of which has been lowering wages. From The Wall Street Journal September 6 of this year: “Some Whole Foods employees want to unionize to address what they say are changes to corporate culture and diminished compensation under the ownership of Amazon.com Inc.” Whole foods created a culture where the company rewarded efforts, paid employees well, and had low turnover because they cared about their staff. My article of June 17, 2017 (a link to the article can be found at the end of this article) pointed out the cultural differences and the conflicts that were bound to come. Predicting the future becomes simpler when one has a clear understanding of the present.

A Whole Foods employee assisting a customer at a store in Burbank, Calif., in June. PHOTO: DANIA MAXWELL/BLOOMBERG NEWS

To put it bluntly, Whole Foods was interested in retaining employees and keeping them happy, while Amazon’s interest is to keep only high-performing employees until such time as they burn out or are of no more use to Amazon. Amazon is far from the only relatively recent high-tech corporations to place such an emphasis on culture. Consider an article about Netflix from The Wall Street Journal from October 26 of this year. “Employees are encouraged to give each other blunt feedback. Managers are told to apply a ‘keeper list’ to their staff-asking themselves whether they would fight to keep a given employee-a mantra for firing people who don’t fit the culture and ensuring only the strongest  survive.” Doing a terrific job at Netflix? Better be following the cultural protocols or you’ll be on the street. Culture is right up there with performance.

Mentioned in the article as well, was that overused, shopworn phrase “things have changed.” I love that one, especially when used to try to soften bad news, or to justify an absolutely indefensible position. I have never walked into my boss’s office and began the conversation with “boss, things have changed, so this making it to work on time every day is no longer possible.” The CEO of Netflix, Reed Hastings, in an encounter with Neil Hunt, the chief product officer, is described in the Journal. “Mr. Hastings told Mr. Hunt a lot had changed, as Netflix expanded in Hollywood and overseas, and one of Mr. Hunt’s underlings, Greg Peters, was now more suited for the job.” It’s always nice to have your success recognized, and then be shown the door. A concept Hastings apparently doesn’t recognize is that you will not have a good understanding of where you are unless you know where you’ve been. Unless Peters has been with Netflix the whole time, I doubt he could make that claim. If, like Starbucks, the talent that Netflix has put in the driver’s seat puts them deeply into the red, if I were Hunt, I would tell them where to go if asked to return. It is not unusual for a top executive to return to a company because the “fresh blood” didn’t really understand the nature of the business. I offer Steve Jobs and Apple and Starbucks and Howard Shultz as examples, and there are far more than just those two.

Advice

When the boss or partner initiates the conversation with “things have changed” I recommend you say nothing. Zip, zero, nothing. The party stating “things have changed” is really saying that they changed their minds about something, no matter what they promised, no matter what you hoped for, no matter what plans you had, it’s all gone now. Let them say whatever. Don’t grant them the dignity of a response, let their words echo in their own ears. Let your eyes do all of the talking. They know what they promised, they know what a tool they’re being, or they should. The people that renege of promises or built up some castle in the sky that they later choose to tear down are as honorable as sewer rats. The measure of one’s character is not one’s ability to deal with change. The measure of one’s character is the ability to keep the promises made in the face of change; that precept goes well beyond business.

For my comments on the purchase of Whole Foods by Amazon, see my article at Writer Beat

 


Jeffrey Neil Jackson

Jeffrey Neil Jackson is an
Educator & Literary Mercenary