People Are People But Cultures Are Different

When you’ve lived as long as I have, you’ve met a lot of people — people of many walks of life and personalities. You end up liking some more than others. But one thing you come to realize is that people are people. We have different personalities and aspirations, but, in the end, we’re constructed the same. Cultures, on the other hand, are a different matter.

By culture, I mean the invisible norms and values that guide an organization. Every workplace has a culture. Pull a group of people together for a common purpose and an organizational culture is inevitable.

Sometimes cultures just develop without any intentional thought, often implicitly dictated, in large part, by the founder. Other times cultures are the product of a lot of thought and intentionality.

Cultures sometimes change as organizations mature (age). Oftentimes, however, culture sticks.

Once entrenched, culture is hard to change. It’s as if it takes a life of its own. In certain respects, it does. It becomes the status quo.

People don’t like change. We cede power to the status quo because it makes us feel comfortable. Any attempt to change culture is a threat to the status quo. It’s hard to change culture.

Yet cultures can be very different. With age, I’ve come to realize it’s something that was far more important than I appreciated when I was young. Looking back, I think life would have been easier if I’d looked for the right culture instead of the right company, college or opportunity. Stated differently, it can’t be right if the culture is wrong.

The culture that best resonated with me after college (which had a great culture in its own right) was the culture that existed at the law firm I joined right out of law school. The firm valued excellence and had an uncompromising commitment to its clients. Consequently, we were good. And the people I had the privilege of working with were good — very good. The culture of the place fit me well. I never again had the opportunity to be part of a group so committed to those values — a place where the cultural fit was so snug.

Yet the place slowly but inevitably changed. The firm matured. Its founders died. The industry changed, too, as did the local business community. Forces outside the firm’s control put pressure on the firm. To relieve the pressure, the firm decided to change its culture and become what it thought was necessary to survive and thrive. And they also bought into that deep-seated American illusion that growth is inherently good. It meant taking in people who didn’t share our ethical standards, and people who excelled at rainmaking (sales) but weren’t good lawyers. In doing so, we lost that which made us special.

The firm could have gone a different route, but it didn’t. So I chose to look for something else. The firm I had joined no longer existed. I had no desire to spend the remainder of my career in this new culture. Leaving some of my colleagues, and the place that taught me how to practice law well at a high level, was painful. Leaving the new culture wasn’t.

I landed in a different culture altogether. It was less committed to excellence and more tolerant of mediocrity and bureaucracy, but it had pockets of excellence. And there were a lot of good people there. Eventually, I had a chance to influence its culture and, in so doing, to help ensure its financial success and enhance the job security of my colleagues. It became a safer, more profitable enterprise.

But it wasn’t easy. Our company was subservient to people from a different culture  — a European one. There was only so much we could do. The tension between the two cultures wore on me. I knew I couldn’t be happy there for long, so I developed and implemented an exit strategy. (Side note: every employee should always have an exit strategy.)

The lesson I learned from this experience was to never work for a company that is controlled by foreigners.

During a professional career that has spanned more than four decades, I’ve encountered other cultures — some a better fit than others. I’ve learned much about cultures and myself along the way.

So what’s the point of all of this, Vera? 

It’s really quite simple. And quite complex.

If I had life to live over, I’d be much more focused on the culture of an organization when considering whether to join it. And much more aware that culture is a real thing — it’s something that impacts significantly my ability to be happy in working there.

But I wouldn’t have stopped there. I think my recognition of the role of culture would have led me to start my own firm or business — a place where I could construct and foster a culture that was to my liking. A place that embraced the values and practices I held dear.

It’s a form of freedom, living and working in a place that is a good cultural fit. I’ve learned that these elements of freedom are hard to achieve and have far more value than we typically ascribe to them.

In my experience, three things stands in the way of a great culture:

  1. The idea that growth should be the objective and is inherently good.
  2. Allowing money to become the purpose.
  3. Complacency, which allows mediocrity to become acceptable and other interests to trump the interests of the client/customer/student.

So what culture would I have tried to foster?

  • Excellence, for one. I’ve learned I loath working in a culture of mediocrity. I’m happiest in a culture that wants to be the best for its clients, customers or students, and embraces high standards for itself.
  • Extreme dedication to our mission. The firm I joined in 1983 was zealous in its representation of clients (while maintaining high ethical standards). The message to young lawyers was, our clients come first. That’s as it should be.

A wing-nut judge once threatened to toss me into jail because I was resisting his lunacy. A colleague on the case later told me, “There are worse things than going to jail for your client.” That extraordinary, nationally known lawyer had in fact been thrown into jail once by a different wing-nut judge. That’s the kind of dedication to which I’m referring.

I’ve discovered that, when people have a mission or common purpose that is noble, it’s amazing what they can accomplish — and how fulfilling and emotionally rewarding one’s work can be.

  • Honesty is another primary element of the culture I would hope to foster. Duplicity is like a cancer. Yet, it’s prevalent in many organizations; indeed, it’s the norm in some. Duplicity always keeps the organization from excelling. And it always makes the workplace a more fearful and political place than it need be. Of all the organizations I’ve encountered or studied, Bridgewater Associates (BA) takes honesty as far as any. Oddly, they’re criticized for it by others. Yet they excel. And they have no trouble attracting and keeping talented people. I probably wouldn’t implement some of steps BA has taken, but I would do everything possible to foster a culture of honesty (and excise from the organization duplicitous people).
  • Egalitarian. Like BA’s, our culture would be egalitarian and not power-based. The merit of ideas and quality of work would trump position or tenure. Again, BA does a great job of this.

That’s really about it. It’s that simple. And yet that hard.

Perhaps you will value different things, Vera. Perhaps a culture that appeals to me would be unwelcoming to you. That’s fine. My point isn’t that you should seek out a culture that I would like; rather, it’s that culture is important and is worth your close attention and consideration.

As for me, I’ve learned that I’m happiest when I’m working alongside people who care deeply about their work (which, basically means the quality of what they do and the people they do it for, whether they be clients, customers, students, or whomever), who engage each other in a frank, intellectually challenging and honest manner (irrespective of rank or tenure), and who are excited and energized by their work and common purpose.

That’s it. It’s a simple culture yet it’s a hard one to find or sustain. Which is why I probably would start my own firm or business if given the chance to relive my life.

People are people but cultures are different. It took me far too long to appreciate fully this reality.

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