How To Assess and Leverage Your Firm’s Culture to Succeed as a Manager

Business professionals collaborating in a meeting
••• GettyImages/TomMerton

Attempting to describe an organization’s culture is one of those squishy, abstract exercises that most of us trip over. If you have been a part of an organization for a long time, you are immersed in the culture daily and you intuitively understand it and how it works, even if you struggle to describe the culture. If you are a prospective employee or new hire, learning to understand the inner-workings of the culture is one of your first challenges on the road to becoming productive.

To prove my point, try a little experiment and ask a few colleagues to describe your firm’s culture. Extend the experiment to your friends who work in other organizations. Take notes. I will wager a cup of your favorite coffee the typical response will include a pause and then be followed by descriptors such as: transparent, aggressive, political, collaborative and any manner of terms that are not particularly meaningful.

For every employee, and especially managers who are dependent upon others to get things done, learning to sense, assess and leverage a firm’s culture is critical for success. This article offers guidance for learning to understand and work within an organization’s culture.

Wrapping Our Brains Around a Definition of Organizational Culture:

Scan the texts and content from management gurus and you will find a variety of definitions of organizational culture. A culture is a composite of the behaviors, processes, styles, approaches, artifacts and heroic stories of present and past members.

The net result of this blend of attributes and my simple, but not simplistic definition is: A firm’s culture is that set of behaviors and approaches that determine how things are achieved in an organization.

From issues of direction and strategy to promotions, new hires, key investments and all other operational issues, the culture is present and visible in the interactions and behaviors of the participants and in the decision-making processes.

Said another way, “culture determines how things happen.”

Learning to Tune In to Your Firm’s Culture:

Given the action orientation of my definition of culture, it is essential for success as a manager and leader to develop a clear understanding of how work is achieved in your firm. Armed with this understanding, you are better prepared to assert your agenda, gain access to critical resources and strengthen your own standing and power in your organization.

Eleven Sets of Questions to Help You Understand Your Firm’s Culture:

  1. What type of behaviors are encouraged? Heroic individual actions? Collaborative approaches and actions?
  2. How are daily decisions made? Do people act first and seek forgiveness or do they ask first before moving?
  3. How are the larger decisions around key investments and new initiatives made? What happens in the lead up to a big decision that influences the outcome? (How do people and groups push their agendas?)
  4. How do managers and contributors below the senior executive level work together to drive initiatives?
  5. Who decides what gets done? Hint: this tells you who and which functions have power in the organization.
  6. What are the stories of past achievements that are celebrated in the firm? What do these stories tell us about the behaviors that are idealized and applauded?
  1. How united are the various functions around common strategies and objectives? If they are not tightly aligned, what are the individual interests and objectives of the different functions?
  2. How do people from different groups come together to execute on key projects and to solve problems? Is this cross-group collaboration routine or is it an extraordinary event?
  3. Are the firm’s values present in everyday working life? What are visible examples of the values in action?
  4. What happens to individuals who do not live up to the values of the firm? Are their behaviors glossed over, or are there repercussions for operating outside of what is deemed acceptable?
  5. Who gets ahead in the firm and how do they do it? How did the three most powerful people in the organization without a “C” or “V” in their title (as in Chief Marketing Officer or Vice President)

    How to Maneuver and Succeed within Your Firm’s Culture:

    Armed with feedback from the analysis based on the question sets above, you are better prepared to move faster within the culture to your advantage and your team’s advantage.

    Successful managers learn to:

    Bypass non-essential processes and political roadblocks by taking advantage of the real decision-making processes in their firms. They work through the informal processes first and then as needed, plug in to the formal process.

    Appeal to collective or individual interests depending upon how widely shared strategies and objectives are across the firm.

    Win by leveraging the values. They propose solutions and approaches that unarguably support the spirit and intent of the firm’s values.

    Cultivate productive relationships with the real power brokers in the organization—the individuals who decide what gets done and who is involved.

    Propose and lead cross group activities that showcase them as leaders for solving key challenges or seizing new opportunities.

    Make heroes out of individuals in other groups as a means of extending power. 

    Exhibit behaviors that mimic those individuals who are viewed as successful climbers, growing their power and authority.

    Advocate for their own team members by linking them with key initiatives and teaching them the processes and approaches for moving ideas and programs forward.

    The Bottom Line:

    Occasionally, someone will react to my guidance by suggesting that it sounds “too political.” My response is that every location where humans organize in a group, a political environment emerges. To ignore the politics and power in a group is naïve if you are committed to furthering the group’s interests. If you happen to further your own interests in pursuit of organizational or group objectives, that is indeed a positive outcome.