By Sumantra Sengupta
Over the years, I have had the pleasure of serving a range of organizations from cool startups to the Fortune 100 global giants. Very little of what I learned in business school prepared me for the various mental machinations that I had to perform to align and succeed in these different environments. In some instances, I learned to adapt. In many cases, the adaptation process had to be mutual.
I have also witnessed others deal with cultural fit. Some were amazing success stories and others were huge flameouts. The successes have gone on to serve at the highest level of their companies and the flameouts have departed, voluntarily or involuntarily, sometimes in less than three or four months.
I found that successful cultural alignment is a mutual four-pronged process:
• Understanding one’s role: This is a crucial element, especially for experienced hires since the job description and the actual role of the individual are often somewhat misaligned. The job description tends to be just the minimal requirements. It is the unwritten agenda items that make the alignment tough — the soft stepping on other people’s turf, the gray zones where a business process is not quite owned by anyone, the unintended advice that is viewed as threatening by others. When the hiring manager and, in some cases, even those higher up are crystal clear in articulating the actual job functions, both core and ancillary, the alignment process is smoother, although it will never be perfectly smooth.
• Understanding the nonnegotiables: Every organization has processes and in many cases people that are considered part of the fabric, what I would call the set of nonnegotiables. Any alignment and work that a new employee must successfully handle should not cause too many disruptions to the nonnegotiable set. This can sometimes be a frustrating exercise for people but making it work makes assignments enjoyable. The key part is to ensure that new team members gain an understanding of the nonnegotiables quite early in their tenure with the company.
• Understanding the organization’s ability to change and accept outside views: This is easier said than done. Every organization believes that it is open-minded and able to change until the first change item is presented. Then, the excuses start. “We tried that many years ago.” “It was not developed here so how could it work here? “That may work elsewhere but we are different.” And, of course, the timeless, “You don’t understand.” I am sure this sounds painfully familiar to many employers. There is no sense in denying that change is tough. We always want the other group or person to change since we have the distorted reality field around us of perfection. This type of mindset can essentially squash all elements of change as well as deter innovative ideas from being presented in the future. Organizations must assign change champions to serve as mentors who can drive the company to the next level. This includes balancing executive management’s agenda items, both the openly stated ones and the hidden ones.
• The ability to mutually opt out: Cultural alignment and assimilation can sometimes be like a marriage. One has to read the signs and figure out mutually if spending more time on it will ever pan out. Sometimes, it is best to just call it quits and part as friends. It is not a show of defeat or a hiring mistake. It could be something as simple as biting off more than you can chew.
These four steps have worked for me in many cases as I have been hired and have hired others. They definitely work for experienced hires and even for entry-level positions with some variations. By putting them into practice you will find that you can answer in the affirmative more often than not when asked, “Is this a culture fit?”
• Sumantra Sengupta is the MBA program director and a faculty member in the California Lutheran University School of Management.