What Do We Do with Executives Who Don't Want to Talk About Culture

Erik DietrichWed, 12/13/2017 - 10:42

Years ago, dressed in the obligatory suit, I walked into a Chicago office building for an interview.  My mission?  To interview for and secure a job offer as the head of a software development group.  Exude humble confidence. Maintain dignified poise.  You know the drill.

I don't remember the particulars of the interview all that well.  The people were nice, the company was doing good work, and it was all pleasant enough.  I wound up passing on the offer, but only because something I liked even better came along.  But there's one thing that I'll always remember vividly about this particular experience: an object lesson in what corporate culture is.

Or rather, what corporate culture isn't.

How Not To Do Culture

Following the interviews themselves, one of my hosts treated me to an office tour.  This included the usual suspects, such as the work area, my prospective office, and the cafeteria.  But there was one additional, important stop on the tour.  Since they were a "work hard, play hard" culture that valued fun, my tour guide wanted to show me something.

He took me past the break room and, with a flourish, showed me this embodiment of corporate hijinks.  Ta-da!

I found myself looking at a desultory foosball table in what I have to imagine was a closet before becoming the "foosball room."  It was cramped -- probably too much so to actually play foosball.  A flickering fluorescent light lit the room unevenly.  And then I noticed the coup de gras.  Someone had taped up a sign explaining that people could only play foosball before 8:30 AM or after 5:00 PM because the noise was distracting.

"That's the most depressing thing I've seen in a long time," I said.  Actually, I didn't say that.  I probably murmured noncommittal appreciation.  But I felt it.

Let me reiterate something I said earlier.  This was a good company, and these were good people.  But their culture wasn't "work hard and enthusiastically play foosball."  And all of the foosball tables stuffed into closets in the world weren't going to change that.

So What Is Corporate Culture?

"Corporate culture" is a term that's rapidly approached buzzword status over the years.  So I won't attempt a canonical definition, per se.  Instead, I'll describe our shared understanding for the sake of clarity throughout the post:

Corporate culture is a reflection of what an organization values.

In the case of the company above, they wanted to communicate that they valued fun.  Perhaps they wanted to value fun.  But what they actually valued, when the rubber met the road, was not bothering people between 8:30 AM and 5:00 PM.

You'll find so-called "tough" cultures at up-or-out companies, where the organizations value ambition and competitiveness.  At companies where foosball tables appear spontaneously, you'll find a collection of folks that do, in fact, value boisterous fun.  You get the idea.

The Veeps Don't Want to Talk Culture

In the title of the post, I ask what you should do when an executive doesn't want to talk about the company culture.  Let's be clear about something.  Executives will always talk about culture in the same way people show off the foosball table gathering dust: look how great our culture is!

When they don't want to talk about culture, it means they don't want to talk about culture problems.

They'll point happily at foosball tables while the team suffers through death marches.  They'll talk about integrity at the all-hands meeting while employees snipe at one another for scarce COLAs and promotions.  And they'll describe a culture that others might call toxic as "no-nonsense."

They'll avoid talking about culture in the context of talking about the problems with the culture.

So what can you do in this situation?

Start With What's Good

What I've described in this post speaks to an idea that I'll call a cultural deficit.  The VP says the culture is one of integrity but presides over a department of back-stabbing.  And you want to address this deficit.

Don't do it by marching in and calling the company (and the VP) hypocritical.  Don't even hint at this.

Instead, focus on the aspirational aspect of the culture.  "I know this company values integrity, and I think we could show that by..."

You'll have substantially more success in any culture conversations you start by using this as the framework for starting them.

Talk in Dollars, Cents, and Benefits for the Business

If you're running something up the chain of command to try to fix culture, you must understand something.  Management, and especially executives, hear a lot of opinions on the way things should be.  Seriously -- a lot of them.

If you have ideas for how to fix a problematic culture, you need to differentiate yourself.  I'd suggest that you do this by couching things in terms of what is and is not good for the business.

Let's take the back-stabbing culture example.  When you start a conversation about how people are mean to each other, it's hard for anyone to know if this is a pervasive problem or if you're just sensitive.  It's subjective and it's intangible.

But if you gather some data or make a case in dollars and cents, people will listen.  Talk about the cost to your organization of increased attrition or decreased collaboration and communication.  Even better if you can gather some historical data.

When you do this, the culture conversation may still be difficult, but at least it will have a powerful incentive for the executive to pay attention.

Create and Spread a Good Version of the Culture

The other main way to start a conversation with executives is with results.  Figure out what you can do locally, to your group or team, to create a pocket of better culture.

This requires a good bit of hard work and probably some buy-in from the folks around you.  But if you're serious about fixing things, you'll probably have to put more into it than just talking.  So see what changes you can bring.

If your changes result in your team delivering better results or somehow driving better outcomes, then people, including executives not wanting to talk culture, will notice.  They'll want to know your secret, and they'll listen to you when you tell them.

Change Your Company...or Change Your Company

The hosts of one of my favorite podcasts have a great turn of phrase.  Change your company...or change your company.

In the last section, I just described a difficult but hopefully achievable strategy for effecting a culture change.  You seek to change your company for the better.

But, if nothing I've outlined here works, you do have another option.  You can change your company.  Meaning you can change which company you work for.

This is obviously a drastic measure, but it's an important one to keep in mind.  If the culture has become untenable to you and all of your efforts to change it come up short, you need to think about your happiness and your sanity.  There are a lot of organizations out there, with a lot of cultures, and plenty of them will offer a fit for you.

Always Lead By Example

Whatever you ultimately do to facilitate or force the conversation, remember always to lead by example.  Sniping and taking potshots is easy, and people in leadership positions suffer through that constantly.  You need to differentiate yourself from the myriad peddlers of sour grapes.

So stay positive, focus on business outcomes, create a version of the culture you want, and, if none of that works, find something that fits.  But as you do all of those things, always hold yourself as an example of the culture that you'd like to see around you.  When you do that, neither you nor your company will need foosball tables in closets to make your points about culture.