Career Resources

Cultural Fit: First, Last and Always

The concept of organizational culture fit in the career management context is tough to explain. Why? Because it is a moving target. That’s unfortunate because “fit” explains so much about what happens in careers. For example, good cultural fit explains why one person out of a pool of qualified executives receives the job offer. And the evaporation of fit explains why, despite a congenial and productive tenure, an executive decides to move on to a new opportunity.

Let’s start with new relationships. “Chemistry” is a term we use in personal and professional contexts. It describes the phenomenon of two unacquainted individuals getting together and establishing instant rapport. Folk adages abound that provide formulas for predicting good chemistry. “Birds of a feather flock together,” but “opposites attract.” Take your choice.

So what really constitutes fit in a new-hire situation? One cannot overlook the employing organization’s culture. Elements of culture to consider include information sharing practices (free-flowing vs. restricted); whether management operates by competing or collaborating (win-win team orientation vs. win-lose silo mentality); expectations regarding “face time” in office and social settings; company profit vs. community contribution as a predominating orientation; and, of increasing importance, appreciation or disregard for work-life balance.

In new-hire situations involving relocation, one should also consider the environment outside the organization. Is the new community accepting of diversity or is it more traditional and homogenous? Are cultural, recreational, and educational opportunities available locally or will travel and use of paid time off be necessary? And for two-career couples, will there be appropriate opportunities for both workers?

To what extent can executives determine cultural fit when moving into a new position? If a new career opportunity has arisen through an executive recruiter, candidates almost certainly will have the opportunity to learn about nuances in the culture. If no recruiter is involved, then determining what aspects of fit are operating in favor of accepting an offer requires determined and skillful networking. No matter how one learns about the culture, a bigger challenge may come from forcing one’s self to fit when doing so is contrary to the real person and real executive inside. Financial and relationship demands may lead even a “tiger of an executive” to try to lose those stripes. But the ultimate toll from becoming purposely misplaced can punish all involved--professionally, personally, and emotionally. By far it is preferable to keep up both one’s integrity and one’s network.

Organizations whose cultures change can cause established executives to consider moving on. One area with a large impact is the policies and practices regarding advancement and succession. Other questions to ask are: Does the organization strive to promote from within or does it seek prospective employees from outside? Are managers rewarded for being risk takers and change agents or are incrementalism and maintenance the preferred mode? Does management accept the need for career resilience and allow internal transfers or even “no fault exits?” Or is there an adherence to loyalty that binds executives against their personal or professional self-interest?

Can established executives influence cultural fit? Top-level executives should regard shaping the organization culture as one of their leadership imperatives. In fact, culture building is one of the key competencies measured in the Career Resource Center’s Visionary Leadership Assessment Workshop. Ideally, the culture a leader constructs will support realizing a vision that enhances organizational viability and functioning. Unfortunately, it is not always possible to shape the organization. Are there ways for established executives to accommodate themselves to an uncomfortable organization culture? Two factors play the biggest part in deciding an executive’s continued employment. First, does the culture force an executive to violate personal or professional ethics? If so, accommodating may involve self-betrayal and potential exposure to other kinds of grief, including legal jeopardy. Second, if there is lesser incompatibility, then one must determine whether accommodating will be possible only at the cost of compromised ability to perform and contribute. If significant compromise is required, then a job change is a predictable result.

Whether you are considering moving into a new position or have been in the same company for many years, corporate culture plays a large part in your level of work satisfaction. Every one has their own work style, finding an organization that matches your preferred culture is key to your success.