Linking Personal Success & Organizational Culture

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If you read my blogs you know that I am a firm believer in Peter Drucker’s adage that “organizational culture eats strategy for lunch”. In other words, having the best people is more important than having the best strategy (a premise that Patrick Lencioni outlines well in his book called The Advantage).

When we apply this principle personally, it also means that we need to ensure that our personal cultural preference fits the organizational culture where we work. No matter how great a company is, a misalignment between your preferred culture and you organizations culture will create challenges.

So how do we determine this fit?

Adam Grant, a professor and NY Times columnist recently tackled this issue in an excellent article. He begins by suggesting that we ask a simple question when we interview at a company:

Tell me one thing that makes your organizational culture unique.

Research shows that the responses to this question are going to be unique but will also fit into one of several broad themes”. Here are four of the most common themes to watch for.

“Story 1: Is the Big Boss Human?

The plot involves an authority figure who has a chance to act as if she’s better than everyone else. The insurance company president who takes his turn fielding calls on the company’s switchboard throughout the year: He’s one of us. The executive who doesn’t let anyone use his parking spot — even when he’s on vacation — maintains an air of superiority. This is one of the big debates about Steve Jobs: Was he a narcissist who felt entitled to special treatment or a leader who sought to bring out the excellence in all his employees?

Story 2: Can the Little Person Rise to the Top?

The uplifting version of this story is a Horatio Alger tale. Colleen Barrett begins her Southwest Airlines career as a secretary and lands in the presidency; Jim Ziemer starts at Harley-Davidson as a freight elevator operator and rides all the way to the corner office. In the more depressing variation, a low-status employee achieves great things but is denied promotions.

Story 3: Will I Get Fired?

The organization may need to conduct layoffs: What does the leader do? Contrast the former Walmart chief executive Michael Duke, who slashed more than 13,000 jobs while raking in $19.2 million, with Charles Schwab executives’ taking pay cuts to avoid downsizing — and giving employees who lost their jobs a bonus when they were rehired.

Story 4: How Will the Boss React to Mistakes?

In many organizations, employees are fired for errors. Some stories point to a different culture, like the famous one at IBM in the 1960s. After an employee made a mistake that cost the company $10 million, he walked into the office of Tom Watson, the C.E.O., expecting to get fired. “Fire you?” Mr. Watson asked. “I just spent $10 million educating you.”

Grant goes on to point out a very interesting lesson; “Take a close look at these stories, and you’ll see that they deal with three fundamental issues:

  1. Justice: Is this a fair place?
  2. Security: Is it safe to work here?
  3. Control: Can I shape my destiny and have influence in this organization?”

Understanding your own preferences for these three things will help you understand what is important to you. Some of us thrive amidst injustice. Others require a high level of security. Still others are looking for jobs where they can just do their work and clock out – they don’t need high levels of control.

If you are already employed, this is still a good question to ask yourself; what is one thing that makes your organizational culture unique? How does your organizational ‘story’ match up to your personal need for justice, security and control? The alignment of your organizations dominant story and your own needs is where you will find your employment sweet spot.

Head ShotDr. Jeff Suderman an educator, futurist, consultant and pracademic who works in the field of organizational development. He partners with clients to improve culture, leadership, teamwork, organizational alignment, strategy and organizational future-readiness. He resides in Palm Desert, California. Twitter: @jlsuderman


Adam Grant (Dec. 20, 2015). The one question you should ask about every new job. The New York Times on-line.


  1. Heather

    Thanks Jeff, great food for thought while I am prepping for interviews!

    • Jeff Suderman

      Thank you Heather – all the best in your interviews!


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