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Corporate Culture: Leadership’s Petri Dish

By Art Papas, CEO & Founder of Bullhorn, Inc.

Art Papas - Founder and CEO of BullhornI learned the importance of corporate culture when I was 23. Lured by a big signing bonus and the inflated title of “Software Architect,” I left a job I loved with an innovative software company for a higher-paying job with a buttoned-up, risk-averse and slow-moving financial services giant. Unfortunately, neither I nor my employer bothered to question how I’d fit into that environment.

A Cultural Misfit

Abacus“Maybe I can write software using an abacus,” I joked, after spending my first 4 days on the job without a computer. My boss wasn’t amused. “I’ve put the order into IT to get you a PC. You’ll just have to be patient.” When my PC finally did arrive, I tried downloading my favorite software tools. To my surprise, I didn’t have access to the Internet. “I’ll have to discuss this with IT,” my boss replied. “I’m not sure it makes sense for Software Architects to have access to the Internet. It’s a security risk.” I was stunned.

So, after only two weeks in the office, much deliberation and a number of candid conversations with my boss and his boss about the fit, I decided to quit. They were out a Software Architect, and I was out a job. I even had to return my signing bonus - which, of course, I had already spent on furniture.

A Ship without a Rudder

Finding a job without a job sucked. Eventually, I landed a job at a start-up that, unbeknownst to me, was struggling on the verge of bankruptcy. I had thought my problem was that I didn’t fit in a large environment, so a small start-up would be the answer. But, while the smaller company let me use the Internet, it possessed no substantial culture at all. People were adrift, which was far worse! 

On Corporate Culture

I learned a lot from these experiences. Corporate culture is a reflection of the CEO’s values, vision and personality. While there are hundreds of business books on the topic, many management teams pay it little more than lip service. How many times have you seen a poster hanging on the wall with some variant of “Integrity Vision and Service”? Integrity is my favorite example of an empty core value. By stating that integrity is important, does that ward off those who lack it? Do the bad guys say to themselves, “I don’t really have any integrity, so I better not work here”?

Culture isn’t about words on a wall. It’s about leadership envisioning where the company is going and determining the types of people who will help get there. Having built Bullhorn over the last 11 years, I’ve seen the role culture plays firsthand in shaping the attitude of the company and its employees, and believe it’s the singular reason that we beat our competition year after year. And, every time I’ve taken my eye off it, I’ve felt the ripple.

Petri dishThe hallmark of a great company is their clarity on who they are and where they are going. As a result, their employees know where and how they fit into the bigger picture, and management knows what kind of people are the right fit for the company. A friend of mine says that culture is like a Petri dish: you can breed either mold or penicillin.

The start-up I worked for was a good example of an untended, moldy culture. As a result, they ultimately collapsed. In contrast, the huge financial services firm had a very clearly defined culture, and they were one of the few firms to ride out the recent financial crisis unscathed. Unfortunately, I was a cultural misfit.

The power of a strong culture is that people know right away when it’s not a fit. It doesn’t drag on forever; strong cultures polarize and, therefore, can’t be diluted. Organizations with strong corporate cultures can inspire their employees to achieve extraordinary results. A sense of purpose — drawn from an understanding of and appreciation for their unique roles — motivates ordinary people to attain the extraordinary. When the culture is clear and the employees fit, it all falls into place.

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