Aligning With Company Culture: Racehorse or Show Horse?

I was racing to my office from an appointment when the light ahead turned yellow—the universal indication to hit the gas, which I did. The guy ahead of me, however, saw the yellow light with a different mindset and braked. Luckily, no metal was bent.

Although I won’t justify my driving habits, it made me reflect on the plight of a former coaching client. He’s a racehorse who wants to speed up rather than move forward with caution, but his company has a yellow light culture and wants him to trot. 

I appreciate his perspective and drive. He wants his company to win big. He’s a team player and believes he can best help his team by performing at a high level of intensity. It’s hard to fault that.

The company is successful. They perform well financially and have many talented people. Their culture has been stable for years. It’s not as though they don’t innovate or appreciate performance, but they value “getting along” above most else. Being liked is as important as being respected. Hitting your goals is good as long as you don’t rub people the wrong way while doing it.

This is an interesting coaching situation. What should he do? Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead because the company will benefit financially? Carve out a swim lane where his assertive style is accepted? Slow down and fit in? Find another company with a culture that accepts him?

It’s not my job, nor is it a good idea, to tell him what to do. It’s my job to help him—through questions, observations, and risk assessment—make an informed decision and create an action plan, realizing that there are multiple possible right answers but probably one that best aligns his interests with the company’s.

It’s difficult, even for a CEO, to change an organization’s culture. CEOs, of course, can pull almost all the levers as long as they have the support of their board or ownership group. But even a relatively high-level executive (C-level or VP) is in danger of losing their job if they violate the culture. 

Some of you may feel like an outlier in your organization, perhaps because you’re unwittingly violating the culture. And to confuse things further, the stated values don’t always add up to the culture. Some things aren’t stated in public, but you’ll know it when you hit the invisible brick wall. (If you want to really understand the culture, look for the heroes and the folks who get bumped out and ask why that is.)

My bias in this regard is summed up by Peter Drucker who said, “Effective leadership is not about making speeches or being liked; leadership is defined by results not attributes.” However, you must also fit in well enough to keep playing on the team!

How well do your values and work habits align with your company’s culture? How can you be more successful vis-à-vis that culture? Think it through and make a plan!

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