I always wanted to work in a place that had fun: lots of laughter and smiling faces, an open-door policy, people working together. In short, I wanted to work at a place that I could call home. In the ’80s, when I worked for a frozen pizza brand, I took it upon myself to seek out my ideal company culture—the one I knew I’d thrive in. I carefully observed how district leaders’ behaviors and communication habits created distinct cultures within their districts.
When I was promoted to a district manager at 26, I was able to use my observations to begin building the specific culture that I wanted to be part of and provide for those around me. I’ve been curating the cultures of my companies ever since.
According to Gallup’s “2017 State of the American Workplace” report, only about half of professionals are currently engaged at work. Company culture drives engagement, and engaged employees are more productive, happier and feel empowered to perform at optimal levels. As a result, they’re more likely to be successful later down the line. I’ve certainly noticed this when seeking new jobs in my life. I believe company culture is the biggest determinant of success for employees.
But company culture is not one size fits all. You need to decide which style will best boost your engagement and keep you motivated to succeed. Here are the different work environments I’ve encountered throughout my career:
• Competitive Culture
When I worked at the pizza company, highly competitive cultures were the easiest to recognize. Competitive leaders believe success is entirely up to them. They tend to believe if they don’t win, they lose, and they look out for themselves first. These were the managers who attracted salespeople who wanted to be No. 1 in the district—and wanted it at any cost. Anything less than an all-out drive to be at the top meant you probably wouldn’t survive. Managers fired their lowest-producing workers every 12 months if they couldn’t force them into quitting first.
Though this competitive culture was riveting for thrill seekers, it also created a distrustful environment. Everyone was working against each other, and district managers encouraged the competition. People who lead this way can be successful in the short term, but eventually, the competitive culture will instill fear in employees—whether that’s fear of being fired or fear of not measuring up—and this equals low employee confidence and ultimately low retention. In fact, 43% of employees say they’d leave their current jobs if the environments became too competitive.
• Hands-Off Culture
If you tend to think people put too much pressure on themselves and your top priorities aren’t money and success, you’ll feel right at home in a hands-off culture. At the pizza company, the district managers who paid the most attention to themselves, their families and their jobs built this type of culture.
They didn’t micromanage their salespeople or push them to compete; they simply let them do their own thing. This was good and bad: While they didn’t foster toxic competition, these managers tended to have a “do your job to make me look good” mindset and didn’t put much effort into the management aspect of their jobs.
This created a culture where mediocrity ruled supreme. There was minimal pressure to succeed, and nobody pushed anybody. This “culture” was really more of an absence of culture. The district managers rarely showed up in their territories, mostly kept in touch by phone, and often rewarded employees with perks like dinner or parties when they did well. No one really grew within this culture.
• Collaborative Culture
In a collaborative culture, managers put their employees first—and I most admired the district managers who built this kind of culture. They visited every territory equally (even the less profitable ones) and went to bat for their employees if a corporate goal was unachievable or they needed additional promotional time. They refused to fire good workers, even if it meant putting their own jobs on the line.
A collaborative culture is one that builds trust and support between all employees. According to the “Slack Future of Work Study,” 91% of employees want to feel more connected to their co-workers. A collaborative culture is founded on connection. When your co-workers and managers are committed to helping those around them succeed, it means more success for the company as well as the individuals within it.
When I became district manager at the pizza company and began forming the culture on my own, I focused on this style. And since then, I’ve stuck with it. I’ve now been instilling a collaborative culture in my current company for more than 25 years. My company’s management team engages our company values of integrity, knowledge, care, communication and commitment to create a business where we balance our reputation, our agents’ needs and our clients’ happiness.
Those who welcome support in their careers and want to collaborate, rather than compete, are drawn to this kind of culture. These are people who want to be a part of something bigger than themselves, value shared leadership and raise others’ voices up.
Finding Your Cultural Match
When you’re exploring new job possibilities, how can you evaluate a company’s true culture? It seems like a tall task, but it may actually be easier than you think. I find that the simplest, most accurate way to get a good gauge on this is visiting the company in person. Ask to tour the office when you visit and make mental notes of things that stand out to you.
For instance, what do people’s workspaces look like? Are they messy, fun, rigidly organized? If desk spaces look barren and include very few personal touches, you’ve likely found a competitive culture, where employees tend to be focused more on one-upping each other than creating a warm, inviting space. The desk spaces in hands-off and collaborative cultures will similarly vary: some sparsely decorated and others laden with personal touches.
Also, be sure to listen or talk to the employees you see on your tour. If the space is dead silent, it’s more likely to be a competitive atmosphere than a collaborative one. Conversely, if it seems a bit too rowdy and unfocused, the culture might be a little too hands off.
Even front-desk staff members can give you an excellent idea of what it’s really like to work at the company. Sure, they’re welcoming when you first enter the building, but hang around for five minutes and see if they still give you the same smile. Listen carefully when they answer the phones and talk with other employees.
Pay attention to what you hear, see and, most importantly, feel as you walk through the office. It might not be a tangible metric, but the “vibe” of a place goes a long way in displaying its true personality. In my experience, the feeling you get when you first walk into an office is generally correct.
Here are three steps to help you find the company with the perfect culture for you:
1. Know thyself.
It’s hard to change your personality. Just because you want to be in a collaborative culture doesn’t mean you actually fit in there. Once, I interviewed someone who had a reputation for being competitive, hard-nosed and difficult to work with. I addressed it during her interview, and she expressed her desire to change, saying she wanted to work with our office because of our reputation for collaborating with other offices.
She wanted to change her image, and she believed we could help. Though we worked hard at it—and I believe she did, too—it proved too hard for her to change who she was, and she moved on. Know yourself well enough to choose a culture that fits you, and everyone will be happier. Take the time to self-reflect, and ask your friends for their opinions, too. You may not think you’re highly competitive, but those closest to you could have a different opinion!
2. Check the company’s footprint.
Do some research on the company—and I’m not just talking about service lines or revenue projections. Take a good look at potential employers’ websites and social media channels to understand how they present themselves and how they interact with others online.
If you value a sense of humor, for example, gauge if your prospective employer has the same values by reading through its social media pages. If you get 10 posts deep without seeing anything more than sales content full of industry jargon, chances are the company isn’t the best fit for you. A few posts can tell you whether you’re looking at a business that values laughter or one that just values revenue.
3. Buy someone lunch.
If you know someone at a company you’re looking into, do some networking and invite him or her out to lunch. If you don’t know anyone there, this step will require you to go out on a limb, but it will be worth it. Research the company to find employees who are doing what you want to do. Then, reach out via LinkedIn or email. Tell them you’re interested in learning more about the company and invite them to meet you somewhere close to the office.
Don’t bombard individuals, but do come prepared with questions that will help you determine whether the culture is the right fit for you. If you’re someone who likes to chat with co-workers, for example, ask if employees spend time together outside the office. If you like to flex your creative muscles, ask if employees are allowed to decorate their cubicles. Don’t look past the little things.
The bottom line? Listen to your gut when it comes to culture fit. I’ve had successful new hires tell us our office “just felt right” when they walked in—and that was how they knew they wanted to work with us. A company’s vibe is hard to miss if you’re paying attention to the right things.
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