Of birds and corporate culture

Speaking of birds…

Using metaphors to explain and understand different things is always an interesting exercise, and this one fits great in my experience.  Some days ago, I had a job interview in a very professional and competitive company.

I applied to the job posting as the role described an interesting position in Organizational Development. I have – as everyone else who is aware of the current changes in the recruitment world- different resumes, but I just created one that was very unique: a little bit colorful, with a cool design, and very creative elements (for an OD Specialist).

As soon as I sent it I received an answer and I had a telephonic interview with a very nice recruiter, who seemed interested in the kind of projects I had done in the past. As I was not really expecting their call, I explained some unique (and probably irrelevant) OD projects if we compare them with the ones they might manage, but despite my lack of preparation (or perhaps exactly because of it) I got an interview appointment.

I went to the interview and from the moment I arrived, I thought I was in a lab. The office actually reminded me of  a huge corporation I worked for in the past, except this one felt colder, for sure quieter  and with a LOT of light.    The interviewer was nice and warm, but I was not the android OD Specialist he was looking for.   My interviewer was interested in knowing about the projects I implemented to change the corporate culture, but he seemed concerned that my language would be good enough for them, as they work mostly in French. Also, I noticed a bit of stress when we discussed my approach to some sensitive internal clients, as it seemed they wanted someone very diplomatic. My interview lasted about 50 minutes and as I imagined,  my process ended there.  I enjoyed the interview, but I felt a little bit out of place.  Then, I recalled  one of my books: A peacock in the Land of Penguins.

Later I checked on LinkedIn who else from that company was in my network (I had only looked for the people involved in the recruitment process) and yes, all of them looked like penguins. 18 out of 21 were very similar pictures: taken by a professional,  all of them dressed in black, all them smiling for a toothpaste ad. It kind of reminded me of  The Firm.   I could imagine that some of these employees, the recruiter at least, probably started as a peacocks, and slowly lost their color among so many penguins.

I couldn’t help wonder if  the recruiter (or HR) actively wanted to change the culture of the company, or it was just by chance that they found my resume and decided to call me, but for sure, hiring “different” people is not enough.  Changing the culture of a company, is as Edgar Schein says, almost impossible, as it would be if we wanted to change the culture of a country.  Yes, we can introduce some small changes, we can change the game and the goals and, as a result of a concerted effort that involves all the departments, the company may change. But we shouldn’t fool ourselves, it’s not US changing the company, is the company changing itself, adapting itself to the environment. Our job is merely facilitate the process, help the company to learn and implement new initiatives. And of course, some of these changes may hurt sensitivities, and being honest and transparent is always the best policy, and I truly believe in it.

The corporate culture is way more complex than we can imagine. It represents the accumulated learning of the company, they ways of thinking, feeling and perceiving (again, Ed Schein’s concepts) and several of them are invisible. There are different cultures within the company, at the level of departments, teams and work-groups and cannot be assessed with a survey. We can assess it with a more complete process, that implies interviews, observation, dialogue, and reflection, and we can help the company to learn and react  in a more effective way. But trying to “change” it in an unilateral way, would be like trying to paint colorful feathers in the penguins.


Image by silkielangel


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Social science geek. Career and Personal Coach. OD enthusiast. Passionate about change, challenges and creativity.

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