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This is the real question, often unasked, which is behind every job interview I have. As a candidate you are considering spending most of your waking hours with us, for possibly years, and you are asking questions like “What do you see as the long term strategic goals of the company?” People tend to focus on the role and although finding the right title, position and salary are important, if you only consider these  you could be making a big mistake.

The company’s values, norms and practices will have a huge impact on your happiness and success. So how do you find out what a company’s culture is? Ask the people who are interviewing you to tell you stories about the company. Are the stories similar? Can you see any pattern? If one interviewer tells you stories about compassion and caring and another, stories about aggression and winning, at the very least you have got a conflicted organization which doesn’t know who it is, and at the worst it may be a place with open warfare between departments.

Let’s look at some common stories identified by Adam Grant in a recent article in the New York Times:

1. Is the Big Boss Human?

There is an old saying that if you want to see what someone is really like, give them power. And the Big Boss in any company has enough power to act without fearing consequences. So what does he/she do with it? Are there reserved parking spots right outside the door for senior managers rather than being available on a first come first served basis? Does she have a luxurious office, while the people who do the work are in cramped cubicles? Does he like to make “boss jokes”  –  “ Well, Jim, if you don’t make it to the company picnic, maybe you shouldn’t come in Monday either! Ha! Ha! Ha!” Too many people use military analogies to justify awarding themselves excessive power, privileges and prestige, but the reality is as an employee you are not expected to attack fortified enemy bunkers merely because you were told to. You are probably going to be working in an modern company where the range of expertise required is so wide, no-one, including the Big Boss, knows it all. In a modern company distributed leadership (I.e., the leader is theperson with the most expertise on this particular subject) is what works best. Don’t get me wrong. I’m not suggesting the Big Boss has no expertise and shouldn’t make decisions but her decisions should be made regarding whether the sales strategy is appropriate to achieve the company’s objectives, not what color the mugs in the cafeteria should be. This leads directly into question 2 :

2. Can the Little Person Rise to the Top?

How do promotions happen in the company? Dysfunctional companies often have a three tier system – again similar to the military. The “workers/troops” have high school diplomas. The “management/officers” have university degrees and the “C-level/generals” have graduate degrees. And you can tell who the officers are by their wardrobe. This system, in some circumstances, works – where the objectives are simple and obedience is the prime virtue – but do you really want to work for a company like that? The alternative is somewhere like Southwest Airlines whose President started as a secretary or Harley-Davidson  where Jim Zeimer, the CEO, began his career as a freight elevator operator. All of us started out powerless children, but some seem to have the ability to forget  that they used to be a Little Person.

3. How Will the Boss React to Mistakes?

Mistakes are inevitable, since what companies do is attempt to achieve goals in the face of obstacles. Mistakes can range from a strategy that doesn’t work to a package sent to the wrong person, but as long as human beings operate in a volatile environment they will continue to happen. Are mistakes covered up? Does the management acknowledge when THEY may have contributed to the mistake? Is it treated as a regular occurrence which we will cope with and hopefully avoid in the future, or is it an opportunity for someone in power (see 1 above ) to let loose some inner demons and humiliate the offender in public? Some companies glorify this kind of behavior as being “tough” but my personal experience is, to invert an old saying “When the tough get going, the going gets tough.” You only have a limited number of years of life and keeping that big title and lavish salary comes at a high price if regular humiliation is also on the menu.

Every occupation suffers from industry specific diseases – miners suffer from black lung, workers in the poultry industry suffer from carpel tunnel syndrome and so on. But you should recognize that professional occupations do too. Lawyers tend to believe all problems can be solved with the right words, business executives suffer from excess certainty, surgeons tend to confuse their power in the operating room with real power, and so on. While it is difficult to avoid the diseases that afflict every profession – try asking someone in education for a short explanation of something – you can avoid a dysfunctional culture which can make your life a miserable, if well-paid, Hell.

So, what is Ignition72 like? There are
probably ten different answers to that from each of our office-based
staff, but here is mine.

  • Has a chance to lead depending on the topic.
  • Has a chance to talk – in our twice weekly meetings held at 9:09 am (not 9:15 or 9:20!) everyone updates everyone on what is happening in their area.
  • Is treated with courtesy and respect – especially when we screw up!
  • Contributes to the community of which we are part – we, as a team, made up and packed 1500 meals for shut-ins at Moveable Feast.
  • Benefits from the company’s success.

However I think the one key variable is that everyone remembers who we used to be. When we were waitresses or worked construction. Time spent on a cash register or stocking shelves. And we appreciate being here, now.

Stephen Muirhead

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