Note: this essay wanders. I’m leaving it as is, because I found I had a lot to say. I hope that my beloved departed essay instructor Hillary Masters would be ok with it.
When I was younger, I truly believed that small companies had better company culture than large ones, that no large company could match the “feel” of a small company, and that I would never want to be part of anything but a small company. Many years of experience, including graduate level-coursework in treating workplaces as subjects of ethnographic study, have changed my mind, but it took some real experience to come away with what I would even describe as a real definition of Culture at a company. Company culture is so much deeper, and so much more than a mission and vision statement, a statement of intent, or even a set of core values or values statement.
To me, company culture is what happens when a company’s stated values meet its actual values. For example, one company had a values statement of “Health and Family First,” which certainly seemed like a great values statement for a small, family-owned company. Certainly if you met the owner, he would remind you that your health and family were most important. In reality, though, most of us in the headquarters building were expected to work 70-hour weeks and come in sick or not, leaving most employees to scoff at the “health and family” platitude. Bringing this value statement together with a culture of overwork was a mistake when it came to loyalty, and when the company was finally purchased by a larger one, very few were sorry to see it go.
But on the other end, take a company like Booz Allen, which takes its Core Values very seriously. On Day One, you’ll be not only told what the Core Values are, but you’ll have intense training in them and continued training, in person, every year. You’ll be told that everyone refers to each other by first name, up to and including the President of the company. You’ll be told that people will call each other out for lack of core values or meeting them. And, you’ll see people living their daily lives according to them, and talking about them without irony.
I bring up Booz Allen not only because I worked there recently, but because of the real meaning of one of their often-overlooked core values–that of “Unflinching Courage.” Unflinching Courage is what you need in a company to avoid the types of problems that get you on the front page of the Washington Post. You need your people to be unafraid to open their mouths and say “Something is wrong,” “this is illegal,” or “this is unethical” without fear of reprisals.
A recent post on Tumblr mentioned the “Loud American” in Japanese business–the American on staff who plays up the loud stereotype and tells the boss what the Japanese employees won’t. Whether or not this story is apocryphal, more American businesses need to have a culture of Unflinching Courage, where you can call the bosses by their first name, where you are not afraid of reprisals for speaking your opinion, and where you can say “Stop. Something is Wrong.”
Google “clothes pulled from shelves” to see how many horrible decisions have been made in the clothing industry, costing brands money and embarrassment, and for every one, the Twitter feeds say “how can it be that no one ever noticed?” The fact is almost certain that people did notice, and that there was someone up the chain who was too intimidating to allow someone to say “Stop.”
My company is new, and small. To begin to define company culture now would be almost silly: we do our best work on the sofa in front of the big window, and we work long hours getting things started. But as we grow, and we will grow, I know that I will want a real company of health over work, of employees who will always feel they can speak up if something is wrong, and, maybe even, sofas in front of big windows every so often, too.