Career Resources

Finding a Compatible Corporate Culture

Taking the time to assess your cultural fit with an organization can often mark the difference between success and failure.

Gail H. Vergara

By the time an offer has been procured, most job candidates have researched their potential employer from many angles: organizational viability, management's expectations, opportunities for growth, and competitive compensation. Many, however, fail to examine their compatibility with an organization's corporate culture-a more subtle but equally important indicator of whether you will flourish or flounder in your new position. Although it is not always easy to gauge the environment until you have been immersed in it, taking the time to assess your cultural fit can often mark the difference between success and failure.

Like the culture of any country, the culture of a corporation is expressed through its attitudes, behaviors, and politics. Paying attention to certain -cultural clues+ can help you interpret the organization's goals and decide if they are compatible with your own professional and personal goals. To that end, try to document the following information as you move through the interviewing process.

Patterns of Communication.
Learn what style of communication is practiced. If you work best in a group dynamic, you will want to determine if the organization supports an open environment where people willingly share information, or if it is more focused on individual accomplishments and rewards. Investigate how assignments are delegated: with a paternalistic tone, a challenging one, or with no direction at all. Some candidates thrive when faced with undefined or ambiguous challenges whereas others prefer precise and clear directives.

Patterns of Interaction.
How do executives interact with others in the office and how responsive are they to suggestions? If you have a strong preference for either a well-defined, hierarchical management structure or a more leveled field, be sure to learn what channels must be navigated to accomplish tasks. Are subordinates willing to discuss their positions and the corporate culture, or do they remain tight-lipped?

Take note of the type of questions asked of you during an interview. Are your interviewers interested in the results you produced in previous positions, or in your personal or family history? These different lines of questioning can reveal distinct values held by the company. If interviewers stress your past results, they are probably driven by the bottom-line. If they seem interested in who you are, the organization is likely attuned to its employees' personal satisfaction. These two sets of attitudes aren't necessarily incompatible, but if one is emphasized over the other, you must determine if that emphasis supports your professional and personal values.

Corporate Self-Image.
A simple way to unearth the company's own view of itself is to skim through annual reports, marketing materials, and Web sites. The healthcare field in particular provides a wealth of public information that can be invaluable to your decision-making process. Although these tools are somewhat limited because they are offering what the company wants you to know, you will learn how the organization perceives itself. Pay close attention to the particular words a company uses: words like "entrepreneurial/competitive," or "mission-oriented" to describe its focus and goals. When these words appear more than a few times, a definite message is being conveyed.

Physical Environment.
Much can be learned about an organization by simply observing the layout of a building, the dress code for staff, or the decor of offices and general areas. Usually, the more formal the dress, the less relaxed the environment. If your potential new employer is a public organization, like a hospital, stop by a day before the interview and walk through the building; try sitting in the lobby or cafeteria. Gauge your initial reactions as you visit these spaces. Are they user-friendly and comfortable, or cold and uninviting?

Former Employees.
Administrators, managers, and executives who have had their employment terminated are rarely asked to leave because of incompetence; in most cases, the employee does not "fit" with the organization. Learn the history of those who have held the position before-successful or not-to have a fuller picture of the corporate culture. During your interview, ask why your predecessors left and to where they moved; inquire about their strengths and weaknesses. Try to contact former employees, if possible, and ask them to describe a typical day, how management solves problems, or if they had the necessary resources to perform their jobs.

You'll have the most success finding an organization with a compatible culture if you couple a substantial knowledge of the organization with a deep understanding of who you are and how you derive professional and personal satisfaction. Explore aspects of your personal style and personality type by taking a self-assessment. Such tools can help you create a profile of yourself that will be useful in determining if you've found a good cultural fit. ACHE offers several assessments, including a career self-assessment, a learning styles assessment, and a personality type assessment, through its Career Resource Center.

On a more intellectual level, you may have found your dream job, with a prestigious title, increased responsibility, and excellent compensation. But if your "gut instinct" is causing you to hesitate, you must take a second look. Often, job seekers fail to question their instincts because on paper, a new position might seem ideal. People are more apt to make lists of "pros and cons," which they analyze alone, rather than to discuss the cultural aspects of a job with an objective source, such as a spouse or friend. The latter may be the best way to make a decision when you find yourself struggling against your initial reactions. It takes more than being qualified to excel at a new position. Finding the right cultural fit can be the key to maximizing your future success.

For information on ACHE's assessment services, contact Mike Broscio, in the Career Resource Center at (312) 424-9444.

Gail H. Vergara is a managing director at SpencerStuart in Chicago.

This article is reprinted from Healthcare Executive.