Which cop are you today?

Neal Reynolds headshot

Yes, that’s me. Judging from the smile, I’m guessing this was taken on one of my “good cop” days.

Okay, backing up a bit. I’m here to talk about corporate culture. And boy, has my understanding of corporate culture – and importantly, its importance – “come a long way, baby” (remember Benson & Hedges?) since my early days in the working world. In fact, in my first few decades working in the “Mad Men” industry, “corporate culture” was never mentioned. I would be very surprised if, back then, any of the guys at the top (and yes, sadly, it’s true. I must admit to the fact that very few women held leadership roles back then) had even heard the phrase.

Just out of curiosity, I asked Google: “When did corporate culture become a thing?” This is the response I got:

“The term corporate culture became widely known and extremely popular in the business and management world from around the mid-1980s. The assumption is that corporate culture has always existed in the way that those early authors defined it – but we only discovered it in the 1980s.”

So, yes, Google pretty much reinforces my thinking… almost. I’m not sure about the “always existed” part, but I do think Google is right in pegging its “discovery” to the mid-1980s. I’m pretty sure that the folks for whom I worked in those early days had yet to “discover” the importance of a positive workplace culture. Why?

For starters, any evidence of any effort being made to foster a positive, productive workplace culture was conspicuously absent from every ad agency that hired me. None of us were particularly “self aware.”  We didn’t “celebrate failure.” We didn’t take part in off-site bonding exercises. There was no formalized “on boarding;” you sank or swam. You were expected to get in early and stay late. You did your job as best you could with an understanding that you could be let go at any time for any reason. The only time you met with your boss (or even saw him for that matter) was when you were presenting your work; there were no regular performance reviews or assessments which, at times, left you wondering if management even knew you were an employee. You quickly learned that if you didn’t blow your own horn with every accomplishment, there was always a co-worker who was more than happy to abscond with the credit you rightfully deserved. You locked your ideas, which back then were entirely “paper based,” in your desk drawer; and not just when you left the office at the end of the day (which was often around 10 pm.) You locked them away even if you were making a 10 minute visit to the Gents room. (I guess what is now politely termed, a “bio break.”) 

If you sent something to the printer, such as your idea for an ad or a commercial, (which of course could mean major recognition and with it, most likely, a promotion and a raise) you ran down the hall to retrieve it right after hitting the “print” button, lest someone be close enough to take it and claim it their own. After all, we didn’t have our own printers. All roughly 50-or-so of us writers and art directors in the creative department shared one machine, so the halls could be dangerous places, given all of the sprinting back and forth and jockeying for position.

Was this a culture I would call motivating and gratifying? Hardly. Did I love it? Absolutely. But then, those were far different times and I was at a far different place in my life.

Things today, though, are certainly very different. You certainly won’t see me sprinting down an office hallway to be first to a printer! Now that I run a business – at least on good days – I see the workplace in a much different way. And it’s critical that I do. Hiring and keeping good people is extremely difficult. 

Just how important is culture nowadays? According to BuiltIn, “a 2022 survey of job seekers revealed 23 percent of respondents identified “company values and culture” as a top influence over whether they decide to accept a job offer. That same survey also showed 21 percent of job seekers said “poor company culture” was their top reason for leaving a job in the past year and 34 percent reported leaving a job within the first 90 days because “company culture was not as expected.”

So, like many of you out there who are doing what you can to attract and retain top talent, I’m putting a great deal of time and effort into maintaining a culture that can help us all succeed.

I found this to be a good, simple reminder of the goal I need to set for myself: “A robust corporate culture fosters a sense of loyalty and commitment within the organization while providing a clear set of principles and values to guide decision-making and behavior.”1

What are some of the things I do to try and get there? First and foremost, I encourage communication. In between meeting with clients, hosting webinars, and attending conferences, I get with my marketing, sales, design, and web teams on a regular basis to discuss where we are on projects, what my team members need, etc. I schedule regular top-down/bottom-up performance reviews with each employee so that I can make my expectations and goals clear, and they can make theirs clear for me. I do my best to let my employees know that what they do matters, that I’m here to help them reach their personal and professional goals and that, importantly, achievement will be rewarded. I also do my best to let them know that we have agreed-upon objectives and that I have an expectation that those objectives be met. I guess it’s a bit of good cop/bad cop rolled into one.

As I’m sure you know, there are hundreds of companies, websites, “employee engagement” gurus, etc. out there who claim to have the best advice there is in fostering a positive, productive culture.  In the end, from what I’ve seen – and I’ve done quite a bit of research on the matter – they all say pretty much the same thing.  Be positive. Be clear. Be motivating. Be accessible. Be supportive and trustworthy. Be generous with compliments and rewards. Be a good example. It’s not really hard stuff, is it?

I’m curious.  What are you doing to create the kind of culture that can position your business for success?  You running to the printer? I doubt it. As always, I welcome your thoughts.

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1Synergita. Why Corporate Culture is Important for Organizational Success. January 2023.