Corporate Culture Matters


Being sensitive about corporate culture is good form—and good business. Think of it as a question of balance.

Companies, like countries, all have unique cultures.  Whether it’s the foosball table at a Silicon Valley startup or the DC-based law firm that refuses to go business casual, every place is different.  And, you ignore that fact at your own peril!  As in any culture, those who “fit in,” tend to succeed more readily.

A number of years ago, I was in Caracas, Venezuala, on business for Walt Disney’s World On Ice.  We’d hired an inexperienced local promoter, Roman, and we were paying the price.  It was clear he wasn’t doing his job, and we were going to suffer a big loss as a result.  My job was to terminate our agreement with him and enter into a new agreement with a more seasoned promoter.

After sitting at a bar and fruitlessly negotiating for what seemed like a lifetime, Roman excused himself and headed for the bathroom.  Eventually, our Venezuelan contact said, “Roman is ready to capitulate, but he won’t do it out here at the table.  If you go meet him in the men’s room, you can make a deal to terminate the agreement.”  I was skeptical, but I headed for the men’s room. Ten minutes later, we had a deal.  Roman, in keeping with local business culture, felt it would be humiliating to concede to me in public that he hadn’t fulfilled his obligations.  But, in the quiet of the men’s room, he quickly gave in, though he asked that we not share that fact with the others at our table.

While my dealings in Caracas with Roman were not something most people encounter every day, they do, nevertheless, illustrate the importance of understanding corporate culture. Here are some ways to avoid the pitfalls of misunderstanding corporate culture:

  • Learn as much as you can ahead of time – Study the company website. Look at pictures.  Read press releases.  Check Glass Door and similar sites with corporate information/reviews.
  • Ask – If you have an interview or a networking meeting, ask the person who set it up to describe the culture of the company. Ask what type of attire is appropriate or whether it’s okay to take notes on your phone.
  • Observe – Culture is more than just what the employees are wearing or whether people use laptops or phones to take notes, as my interactions with Roman illustrate. Be alert to the culture and, where appropriate, adjust to it.

Of course, you want to respect corporate culture but you also want to remain authentic.  If you are over 50 and going for an interview at a startup, don’t grow your hair and wear it in a man bun just to fit in.    And keep in mind that fitting in does not mean compromising in a way that’s not comfortable. If you like to shave every day, then do it, even if the others like a day or two of stubble.