How Can You Rapidly Fit In To A New Culture?

This is a question everyone must confront at some time, whether you’re a recent grad accepting your first career position or you’re a seasoned professional making a move after 20 years with the same company. What can you do to rapidly engage with the new culture? The following five principles will take you a long way toward success.

  1. Do your homework to ensure a natural fit between you and the culture.
  2. Demonstrate a consistent positive attitude.
  3. Work hard.
  4. Make your boss’ priorities your own.
  5. Cultivate positive relationships.

Do your homework to ensure a natural fit between you and the culture. The single most important thing you can do to fit in involves knowing yourself and learning about the company before you even get a job offer.

 

During the recruitment and selection process, you must make a determination about the natural fit between your values and style and the company’s values and style. You should look for a situation that requires the least amount of change on your part. You’re in a good fit when your natural style just happens to be what works in the culture. The more you have to change to fit in, the more difficult it will be.

 

Invest the time to clarify what’s important to you, and what your natural style is. During the interview process ask questions that will help you make a determination about your natural fit with the culture.

 

Demonstrate a consistent positive attitude. I realize this appears to be a platitude, but it’s not. Positivity matters, and it’s visible on the surface. It’s one of the first things people notice about you, and first impressions matter a lot. Because positivity is contagious, you’ll have a positive impact on the workplace, which means you’ll be adding value right away.

 

Work hard. This is another apparent platitude. But once again it’s immensely important. Everyone appreciates hard work and it’s very visible. It increases the amount of value you’re adding. If you work hard and you have a positive attitude you’ll immediately earn a positive reputation in your new organization.

 

Make your boss’ priorities your own. I’m indebted to one of my mentors, Sigi Brauer, for this insight. This is about adding value. Value, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder. Demonstrate a sense of urgency in moving forward those things that are important to your boss. Again, it’s extremely noticeable, and your boss will sincerely appreciate it.

 

Cultivate positive relationships. Unless you cultivate positive relationships, you won’t fit in rapidly, and you might not ever fit in at all. The topic of cultivating positive relationships has filled many books, so I’m just going to emphasize a few basics.

  • Build trust. Be open and honest. Deliver on your commitments. Act in accordance with the following principle, articulated by Jim Meehan: “I mean you no harm. I seek your greatest good.”
  • Get to know people, and invite them to know about you. Learn what’s important to them, both personally and professionally. Take the time to inquire about their weekend, their vacation, and their family.
  • Celebrate their successes and milestones, both personal and professional.
  • Find ways to be help them, to make a positive difference in their lives.
  • Ask them for help. This might appear counterintuitive at first, but it’s very effective. Find ways in which they can help you. This demonstrates that you see the value they can add. It’s a form of recognition. It actually causes them to like you more.

 

To summarize, if you do only these five things you’ll maximize your ability to fit in and achieve success in your new organization:

 

  1. Do your homework to ensure a natural fit between you and the culture.
  2. Demonstrate a consistent positive attitude.
  3. Work hard.
  4. Make your boss’ priorities your own.
  5. Cultivate positive relationships.

 

Thanks for reading. As always, I’m interested in your thoughts.

 

Larry Sternberg

Are You Starting A New Job?

A new year is a time of new beginnings and many people will soon begin new jobs. Here are a few thoughts about how to do make that transition in the best possible way. My hope is that readers will contribute their thoughts as well.

Avoid making negative or critical statements about your former organization or about the people with whom you worked – even if those statements are factual and justified. This seems obvious to me, but I’m surprised at how frequently this happens. If you do it, you’ll damage your brand and you’ll make it more difficult to build trust with your new associates.

Adopt the mindset of being brutally open-minded (thanks to my associate Brent Proulx for this wonderful phrase). This is an opportunity for learning and growth. Be humble. Allow your biases and beliefs to be challenged. Avoid saying, “This is how we did it at my former organization.” As Steve Covey taught: First listen to understand, then strive to be understood. If you’re sincerely receptive to learning from your associates, they’ll be more receptive to learning from you.

Don’t allow yourself to be influenced by hearsay. Form your opinions about others based on what you personally observe. I remember an individual who joined my company and formed an opinion about person B based entirely on hearsay statements from person A. Person B, by the way, was his supervisor. I counseled him to ignore person A’s statements, but he chose not to. More than a year later he admitted to me that he made a big mistake by allowing A to poison his relationship with his supervisor.

Be aware of a specific form of hearsay, “The boss won’t let us do that,” or some variation of that statement. Way too often, the boss’ position has been misrepresented, or the boss has changed her position. If a particular issue is important to you, verify the claim for yourself.

Be intentional and proactive about developing positive relationships with your new associates. Get to know them and invite them to get to know you. Ask for their help and input. Believe it or not, asking someone for help builds relationship. Nothing is more important than building positive relationships.

Work hard and be relentlessly positive. These are readily observable behaviors. If people in your organization know nothing else about you, they’ll have a good impression.

Beginning a new job in a new organization presents a rare opportunity to polish your personal brand, an opportunity to grow and be your best self more consistently. In the most extreme cases, it could be an opportunity to reinvent yourself. Don’t let it pass. Pursue it with joyful vigor.

Thanks for reading. As always, I’m interested in your thoughts.

Larry Sternberg

Thinking Of Bringing Back Former Employees?

I’ve brought back several former employees, some of whom had resigned and some I asked to leave. I’ve had some successes and some failures doing this, so in this post I’ll share my perspective on the issue.

In all cases, you should start from scratch in your decision-making process. By this I mean that whatever your process is for considering a complete stranger, put this former employee through the same process. Consider everything you learned about this person during his or her employ to be extremely important information, but don’t make the mistake of relying solely on that information. You’ll learn new, important things when you go through your standard process.

No matter how much time has passed since this person worked for you, remember that the situation has changed. The more time, the greater the change. Even if very little time has passed, I assure you the situation has changed. For one thing, there are different people, internal and external, who are competing for this role. Your product mix might have changed. You might have re-organized. The person might have to report to a different supervisor. Your organization might be facing different challenges currently. You get the point. There are all kinds of changes that might well materially affect your decision.

You should also refresh your memory about why this person left. For example, a client recently re-hired a person who was very effective in his sales role, but had been fired for unethical practices about two years ago. In the interview process the candidate spoke eloquently about how he had changed. Sales were down and the client was a little desperate. I advised the client to pass, but they re-hired him. I predict they’ll end up terminating him again for similar reasons.

When the reasons for terminating someone are based on fundamental character traits like work ethic, integrity, or positivity, to name a few, DON’T re-hire the person. There is only a tiny likelihood that they’ve changed enough to make a difference. Every time you hire someone, you’re placing a bet. When you’re betting that a person’s character has changed, the odds against this bet are huge.

I saw this recently in our company. An employee left voluntarily, was gone for a few years, and inquired about whether he could return doing the same kind of work he had done previously. While he was with us, he produced an impressive amount of billable work, but he took shortcuts in his work and too often did not fulfill his commitments. He told us that he had been struggling with an addiction problem during that entire time, but now he was clean. He stated that the flaws in his previous performance would not occur. Frankly, if we could have enjoyed that level of productivity without the performance flaws, it would have been a terrific win-win solution.

We decided to give him a second chance. Sadly, it didn’t work out. We watched his work very closely, and his propensity to take shortcuts remained even though the addiction was gone. He was fully capable of doing high quality work without the shortcuts, but he simply wasn’t motivated to do so. The propensity to take shortcuts was part of his character, not part of his disease. He resigned.

To be honest, I might well make the same decision again. I believe that giving him a chance reflected well on our leadership and our culture. When a person’s previous performance was negatively affected by drugs, alcohol or similar problems, and they’re now clean and sober – that’s when I’m most likely to give that person a chance.

If a person left due to performance problems, you should ask, “What’s changed that gives us confidence the outcome will be better this time?” Becoming clean and sober is a good example. Or perhaps the person was in a very bad fit for their talent last time, and now you have a role that’s an excellent fit. Perhaps he or she had a terrible supervisor (who is now gone). Perhaps the person earned a relevant degree. These are all good reasons to give a person another chance. If you don’t have a clear answer to that question, “What’s changed?” I advise you to pass.

Before you re-hire a former employee, check their references with current employees who used to work with them. On more than one occasion, this step has caused me not to extend an offer to a former employee. I was enlightened about certain aspects of their performance, and I learned more about how the decision would be perceived. When you re-hire a former employee, you must be prepared to explain why.

One final thought. It’s often the case that while the person was with you, you tolerated certain less-than-desirable aspects of their personality or performance because in the big picture you didn’t feel like making them “deal breakers”. But now, when you’re considering re-hiring this person, those deficiencies might take on more significance. If the prospect of dealing with them again is unappealing, it’s okay to pass.

To summarize:

  1. Put this person through your standard selection process.
  2. Refresh your memory about why this person left.
  3. Check references with your current employees who used to work with this person.
  4. Ask what’s changed about the person or your organization that gives you confidence you’ll get a different outcome this time.
  5. Be prepared to explain your decision publicly.

Thanks for reading. As always, I’m interested in your thoughts.

Larry Sternberg

How Do You Teach New Employees About Your Culture?

A client recently asked me this question, and I’ve noticed it’s coming up in various places on the Internet. So I’m joining the conversation.

Every community of people has a definable culture whether they know it or not, and I believe that every organization should be intentional about articulating the fundamental beliefs, values and desired behaviors that define the culture. However, as you know, certain important aspects of your culture emerged organically and unintentionally. Those should be articulated as well, but often they are not.

Here’s an example. When I was with The Ritz-Carlton Hotel Company competitiveness was an extremely important aspect of the culture. It might not be so now, but it was then. To thrive in that company a leader had to have a burning desire to be #1, to be the absolute best, to outperform his/her peers internally and to crush all external competitors – and to do whatever it took to achieve those outcomes.

Here’s another example. To thrive in my current company a high tolerance for ambiguity is required. We don’t adhere rigidly to one way of doing things. There are few policies. Precedent does not control. We adjust for individual situations, individual client needs, and individual associate preferences. So when a new associate asks, “How do we do X?” Most often the answer is an unsatisfying, “It depends.”

Teaching about the organization culture should begin during the selection process. You should tell the candidate what’s unique about your culture in order to help that person decide if your organization is a good fit for them. I once had a candidate ask a very astute question: “What is the single most important thing I should do to be successful in your company?” What a great question. I replied, “Make lots of friends,” because my company’s culture is very social and relationship oriented. It’s almost impossible to thrive if you don’t intentionally cultivate close relationships.

And by the way, your recruitment and selection process is itself an important expression of your culture. Viewed through that lens, is there something you should change?

After you’ve hired the candidate, next comes orientation. During your orientation process you should discuss your beliefs, values and expected behaviors. But please don’t give a litany of boring statements. Make the statements come alive with memorable stories. For instance, suppose a cultural expectation is, “Go the extra mile.” Tell a story to vividly make your point. I hope every reader can tell a legendary story illustrating that point.

Let’s expand on the importance of stories as a way to help people learn what’s valued in your culture. You should continuously build and add to your archive of stories that celebrate the different elements of your culture. Institutionalize the practice of disseminating these stories throughout your company. I believe that this kind of storytelling is THE single most powerful method of teaching and sustaining your culture.

In my final remarks I wish to point out that every human being is an unconscious cultural anthropologist. New employees learn the most about your culture through daily observation. Every single day they learn more about what gets celebrated and rewarded, what gets punished, and what gets ignored. THAT, ladies and gentlemen, is how people really learn the most about your culture.

Take a brutally honest look at your formal and informal reward and punishment practices. To what degree are they aligned with your stated beliefs, values and desired behaviors? You might need to change some practices to achieve better alignment, or you might wish to change some of the statements to more honestly tell it like it is. It’s not at all helpful to a new employee to mislead them about what your culture really is. And it doesn’t work. You can’t fool a good anthropologist.

Thanks for reading. As always, I’m interested in your thoughts.

Larry Sternberg

What’s the Best Way to Evaluate Cultural Fit?

When I use the term “culture” I mean a set of shared values and beliefs that form the basis for: 1) what we actually do, and 2) what we believe we ought to do. As I’ve said before, I think culture has more impact than strategy on the long-term success of an organization. That’s why it’s so important to select people who fit, whose natural values, beliefs and behaviors align with those of the culture. That’s what this post is about.

The challenge here is that culture is always in flux. Some elements of culture are more malleable than others. Some are deeply entrenched and extremely difficult to change. Furthermore, the description of an organization culture depends on where you’re standing. It depends on your perspective. That makes the endeavor of describing a culture a lot more complex than we typically acknowledge.

First let’s think about perspective. If you ask a wealthy New Yorker who lives on Park Avenue to describe the culture of New York City, we’ll get a very different description than the one given by the person who lives in a poor, dangerous section of that same city. If we ask the C-suite executives to describe the culture of their organization, we might well get a very different description than the one given by a rank and file employee.

Now let’s think about flux. (By the way, when was the last time someone asked you to think about flux?) The culture of any organization, any community is continuously evolving due to influences from both internal and external sources. Whatever a person’s perspective, their description of the culture is a snapshot in time. To further complicate matters, different parts of the culture are evolving at different rates of speed.

So when you say that you want a candidate to fit the culture, what culture are you talking about? The culture of a specific division or department? The present culture or the culture the CEO envisions for the future? This is immensely complex. It can make your head hurt. But there’s an easier way to determine cultural fit.

In my opinion, the endeavor of determining who’s a good fit for the existing culture is in some respects easier than describing the culture. Even if we’re not sure we can describe the culture, we can identify existing employees who are a good fit. These are individuals who thrive in the culture and who are widely regarded as exemplifying the desired cultural values and behaviors. We can create profiles of these people and hire to those profiles. This can be done for an envisioned culture as well. We can identify existing employees who exemplify the values and behaviors of the desired future culture, create profiles of those people and hire to those profiles.

Objectively and properly describing an evolving culture from multiple perspectives is a daunting task. But we don’t need to do that in order to answer the question, “What kinds of candidates would be a good fit?” Whether we’re focusing on an existing culture or a desired culture, we simply need to study existing employees who are a good fit and hire more people like that.

Thanks for reading. And, as always, I’m interested in your thoughts.

Larry Sternberg

Who Should Adjust to Whom?

This post is about a common situation. You find yourself with one or more new direct reports because: A) they’re new hires or incoming transferees, or B) you’re the new supervisor of an existing team. So who should adjust to whom? As usual, I don’t think I have the definitive answer, but it’s a question worthy of our attention.

Many leaders believe subordinates should do all (or almost all) of the adjusting. That approach, it seems to me, creates a relationship fundamentally based on power. How important will the new subordinate feel? How likely is it that he or she will perceive the supervisor as someone who cares about them? When leaders base their influence on power rather than legitimacy they create limitations on their own effectiveness. Employee loyalty is diminished, and retention is undermined. That’s not a great way to begin a relationship.

I believe that not only the supervisor, but all team members should be open to making adjustments when transferees or new hires join the team in any capacity. Therefore, it’s important during the selection process to be bluntly honest about the company culture and the team culture. And if you’re a candidate for supervisor you should do your best to clarify your biases, values and management style.  The more one shares this type of information during the selection process, the easier it is to understand how a candidate fits with the existing team. The better the fit, the more likely that everyone will be willing and able to adjust in ways that contribute to positive, synergistic working relationships.

But we’re all human. For each of us, there are some adjustments we’re simply not willing or able to make. So some of these new relationships won’t work. For instance, employees whose previous supervisor encouraged them to be self-directed might well have a difficult time adjusting to a new, control-oriented supervisor. Some will find it more difficult than others.

Intent is the most important element in these situations. Are you proactive in learning about your direct reports and open to them learning about you? Are you sincerely trying to make adjustments to improve your working relationships? If so, people will know it and appreciate it. And in those instances where things don’t work out, they’ll know you sincerely tried to make the relationship work. I assure you, this will make a huge difference in how people see you as a leader.

Thanks for reading. As always, I’m interested in your thoughts.

Larry Sternberg

Why Do New Leaders Cause Turnover?

I’ve observed this phenomenon over the years. A new leader comes in and inevitably some of her direct reports leave. The new leader selects replacements. Then some of the replacements’ direct reports leave. The turnover cascades down through the organization. This post discusses why this happens and what can be done about it.

First let’s be honest. An organization doesn’t bring in a new leader, at any level, who’s vision is to maintain the status quo. Fundamentally leadership is about change. It’s about improvement. It’s about creating a better future.

A new leader brings not only new strategies, but also different philosophies, different priorities, and a different management style. The new leader has existing relationships with people with whom he’s worked in the past. He knows they’re loyal to him, he knows what they can do, and he knows how they’ll do it. He wants known quantities — people he can rely on in this new, challenging situation. Add to all of this the issue of chemistry. Some of the people who had good chemistry with the previous leader, simply won’t have it with the new leader.

So turnover’s inevitable. It’s a fact of life that some people who were successful in the previous regime will not be able (or willing) to make the adjustments necessary to be successful in this new regime. And when the new leader comes from outside the organization the culture change will be more pronounced than if this person is promoted from within. The more pronounced the culture change, the greater the stress on the people in the organization and the greater the turnover.

If anyone had the magic formula for addressing this situation, we’d all know it and it wouldn’t be a problem. So I certainly don’t have “THE” answer, but I do have a couple of suggestions. Please note, these suggestions are focused specifically on issues caused by turnover.

  • If you’re going to make personnel changes, do it compassionately, but do it swiftly. This applies to all levels as this turnover cascades down through the organization. At every level, make these changes rapidly. Drawing out the time frame increases the pain and stress.
  • Turnover requires new people to build positive relationships as rapidly as possible. Be proactive about building relationships with your direct reports, and foster relationship building activities for the new leaders coming in at every level. These new leaders should establish as quickly as possible that they truly care about each of their direct reports. Among other things, this requires a lot of active listening.

I’ve written a couple of posts that might be helpful in rapidly building positive relationships.

For thoughts on the broader issues of managing change, please see this post:

Thanks to my colleague Libby Farmen for suggesting this topic.

Thanks for reading. And as always, I’m interested in your thoughts.

Larry Sternberg