These are pretty intangible things, but when you start working at a place, or for a client, you can get the feel for them pretty quickly. Here are five questions that can help gauge an agency’s or client’s culture:
1) Are the people in the meetings empowered to make the decisions, or does everything need to run all the way up the chain of command?
2) Is there a culture of trust, or a culture of fear? In other words, do the people at the top trust the employees to do their jobs and support their decisions, or do they micromanage?
3) Are big ideas that fail celebrated or punished?
4) Is there an overall spirit of collaboration or competition?
5) Do people make decisions based on what they think is right, or are they guessing what their boss will think is right?
Company culture flows down from the top. Leaders who trust their employees create a culture of trust. Of empowerment and collaboration and big ideas. You can often feel out what kind of company you’re dealing with by sitting in a meeting or two and listening to how people make decisions.
For more on leadership, I recommend Good To Great, by Jim Collins. The cases are a little dated, but the content on leadership is great.
In Jim Collins’s book, Good to Great, he outlines the commonalities of companies that made the leap from good companies to great ones. He talks a lot about leaders and leadership, about the importance of humility and selflessness. This is one passage that I found particularly inspiring:
Shortly before his death, I had the opportunity to meet Dave Packard. Despite being one of Silicon Valley’s first self-made billionaires, he lived in the same small house that he and his wife built themselves in 1957, overlooking a simple orchard. The tiny kitchen, with its dated linoleum, and the simply furnished living room bespoke a man who needed no material symbols to proclaim “I’m a billionaire. I’m important. I’m successful.” “His idea of a good time,” said Bill Terry, who worked with Packard for thirty-six years, “Was to get some of his friends together to string some barbed wire.” Packard bequeathed his $5.6 billion estate to a charitable foundation and, upon his death, his family created a eulogy pamphlet with a photo of him sitting on a tractor in farming clothes. The caption made no reference to his stature as one of the great industrialists of the twentieth century. It simply read: “Dave Packard, 1912-1996, Rancher, etc.”
SIDE NOTE: Packard and Hewlett famously started their company in a garage with $538. Here’s an HP ad about the “Rules of the Garage.”