By Hal Lancaster
HOW OFTEN have you seen it happen? Hotshot exec takes on exciting new challenge, only to flame out in a matter of months. The reason most often cited? "A bad cultural fit."
Just like countries, companies have unique personalities, or cultures. Someone who succeeds in one won't necessarily do well at another.
"When something isn't working out, it's almost always cultural fit," says executive recruiter Dennis Krieger of Seiden Krieger Associates, New York.
When the acquisition of Conrail by Norfolk Southern and CSX Railroad is completed next month, Conrail employees will either join Norfolk or look for new jobs. Either way, they're likely to find a culture different from the "creative, empowered, risk-taking" one Conrail has nurtured in recent years, says Jack Kane, assistant vice president, training and development, at Conrail. "They're going to be nonplused going into some of these other companies, especially rail companies."
So Conrail hired a team of consultants to teach its employees how to get past the usual platitudes and spin control common in recruiting, when both sides are on their best behavior.
The team suggested questions to ask during interviews. How does the company communicate with employees? Does the company encourage employees to learn more about the business? How do people get feed back? How do executives expect to be addressed? What's the company's dress code? What are typical work schedules? How are decisions made? How are raises and promotions decided? Who are the stars, and how did they reach that exalted state?
The consultants also advised employees to take their research beyond the interview. Michael McGinn, President of Executive Transition Group, an executive coaching and outplacement firm, suggested talking to current and former employees and members of professional trade associations to which the company's employees belong.
There are also clues in the stories told in annual reports and other company literature. Look for tales about company heroes to determine what is valued in an employee. Also, read open letters from the leadership and other self-descriptions.
VIRGINIA LORD, of the Lord Group, a career-management firm, suggested tracking employment opportunities at companies' Web sites for evidence of high turnover or recent management shake-ups. If there has been a shake-up, she says, get information on the new leader's style. Often, she adds, executives hire people they're comfortable with, usually from previous jobs. "You can see what happened to those organizations and be a step ahead," she suggests.
Executive recruiters are a potentially knowledgeable source of information, although understand that their first loyalty is to the client.
Being able to observe a company in action can reveal much about the culture. Gary Abram, president of Partners Group, an executive-search firm based in Kansas City, Mo., took on an additional job as executive vice president of development for a freight-forwarding company in Houston. As part of the wooing process, he was invited to a retreat with top officials. "I got to be a fly on the wall," he says. "When I got done, I could see these guys were a lot like me. It took a lot of the guesswork out of it."
Many companies won't let you that close to the inner sanctum, but may let you sit in on an administrative staff meeting that would show how managers and others interact. And, while you're visiting a prospective employer, observe how people treat each other, what the atmosphere is like.
In 1993, Gene Veno finally relented after two years' recruiting efforts and made the leap from his health-care consulting practice to executive vice president of government relations for a large, managed-care company. "I knew the day I got there the culture was wrong," he says ruefully. "Everything was computer driven, not relationship-driven.
THE EXPERIENCE prompted him to dig deeper on his next career move. Earlier this year, Mr. Veno took a job as executive vice president of the Pennsylvania Chiropractic Association, a group he used to represent as a consultant. He looked at the organization's charitable efforts, something that's important to him. He also asked: Does it demonstrate commitment to the position through a longterm contract? Does it show appreciation to its people?
He was impressed that the company gave him a plaque for service when he was just a consultant to them. He also liked the organization's willingness to discuss its problems without prodding.
If you do enough digging, you'll have a fairly accurate profile of a company's culture. But that still won't help much if you donít also profile yourself, says Robert Gately, a business consultant in Hopedale, Mass. Mr. Gately tested his nephew, Paul Gately, for personality traits before a job interview with EMC, the maker of data-storage products. When asked what traits were needed to succeed at EMC, the interviewer said it was a demanding, stressful culture that rewarded quick reaction and spontaneity. From the testing, the nephew knew those were traits he had in abundance, so he took the job.
Mr. Krieger cautions, don't be seduced by the job or the money offer into ignoring telltale clues about a cultural mismatch. "With job searches, as in life," he says, "everything you need to know is in front of you, if you choose to see it."
This article appeared in The Wall Street Journal.
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