As I continue my job search, I’ve realized that a culture fit is the most important thing for me. I have seen bad cultures, cultures that have soured over time, and best of all, great cultures. I have a good idea of what I want, and what I want to avoid. I’m very open with potential employers when I speak with them. I have two basic requirements: a culture fit and a smart team doing interesting work. I’d like to use this post to dive into the first. Culture can mean many things and is one of the more subjective aspects of a company. This list are the traits of what I consider an awesome culture.
A good culture is transparent from top to bottom. Decision makers should expect to explain why a decision was made. Dictating direction without context should be avoided. People shouldn’t be intentionally excluded from conversations and instead should be intentionally included. Don’t fear disagreement. This approach creates engaged employees who buy in, even if they don’t necessarily agree in the conclusion. Keeping the process above board and out in the open is critical.
Team members must trust each other. This trust manifests itself in a number of ways. One way I always look for is how team members comment on their peers’ work. Does the recipient respond angrily or dismiss the critique? Is the critic genuinely looking to improve the solution or is he undermining the author? Trust is required in both directions – the critic needs to trust the author will listen and the author needs to trust the critic’s intent.
There must be opportunity within the team. Emphasis should be placed on both technical and soft skill growth. Leadership opportunities should be provided as often as possible. A manager’s focus should be making her team successful. Success should be measured not only in project deliverables but also in employee growth. Teams that focus only on business outcomes will falter and lose people. Individuals need to see growth and opportunity to stick around.
The team needs to work well together. A collection of individuals working in silos never results in a high performing team. Similarly, teams working in silos never result in a high performing organization. We’ve all seen examples of fiefdoms in our professional lives; people who wrap their arms around “their stuff” and guard the walls. That never makes for a healthy team. Instead teams should work openly with adjacent orgs. Trust that the best solutions will result from including others.
Team members should expect to be held accountable. Being held accountable doesn’t mean being flogged for failures. It means that people take responsibility and learn from their mistakes. It also means that leaders learn from missteps, better understanding how to position the team for success. The team tries to do better the next time, constantly evolving and improving. In the extreme, low performers are managed out and are not allowed to hold the team back.
These are the traits I’m looking for in a company culture. These are also the qualities I try to instill in the teams I manage. I believe they are critical regardless of the work we’re doing. These are attributes of highly successful teams but aren’t easy to foster. As a leader you must demonstrate them consistently and make sure your team is overtly aware. If you are trusting someone, tell them. If you have expectations, tell them. If you’ve failed, tell them.
So how do I figure out company culture in an interview?
It is very hard to assess these qualities during the interview process. These are some of the questions I use to suss it out:
What is the culture of the team?
Go after it directly. If the interviewer stumbles or can’t describe it, red flag.
Is there someone who has left recently because they weren’t a culture fit?
Pay attention to why the person wasn’t a fit. Is the interviewer factual or subjective in responding? A response without emotional judgement is a good sign.
How does the team make decisions?
1:1 with an individual contributor? Peer discussions? This one speaks to collaboration.
Can you tell me about someone who has advanced her career here or elsewhere as a result of coaching?
Speaks to growth. A good manager will be happy for someone who grows, even if it means it is somewhere else. Sometimes there simply isn’t internal opportunity (for a management role as an example).
Do you have other cultural traits you look for? Let me know in the comments!