Do you understand your company's personality?

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'That's How We've Always Done It'

Whenever you hear phrases like "That's the way it is around here" or "That's how we've always done it," you're dealing with corporate culture. Tread carefully: Cultural impulses aren't always logical, and there's always more to them than meets the eye.

"I've been burned by culture occasionally," says Stephen Balzac, president of consulting firm 7 Steps Ahead and an adjunct professor of industrial organizational psychology at Wentworth Institute of Technology in Boston. Before his current roles, he spent 20 years as a software engineer, and that's when he learned the hard way about corporate culture.

In one memorable case, he was brought in to help a bioengineering firm revamp its operations. Begun in a garage, the company had grown quickly and now had large corporate clients. Its habit of releasing software rapidly and then fixing bugs as they cropped up had become a liability. "We had to turn into a professional software company," Balzac recalls.

The company's leaders told him they felt their all-day meetings were a time suck. So Balzac set about replacing the meetings with other forms of communication. He was then asked, "Why are you getting rid of the meetings?"

"Because you hate them," Balzac replied.

"But they work!" came the response.

The company's culture was so entrenched, Balzac realized, that even traditions that were unnecessary and unpopular couldn't be removed without trauma. "I learned to back off a little," he says. He instituted changes more gradually. And he gave management ample opportunity to try doing things the old way and confirm that it wasn't working before introducing a change.

Balzac sees culture as something akin to the body's immune system: It accepts what it recognizes and rejects the unfamiliar, useful or not. "Think of Apple with John Sculley," he says. "The whole company acted like it had a bad case of the flu."

What Are Your Values?

In many cases, examining the culture will reveal the true values of the organization. At kCura, for example, the culture is "team-oriented and personal, and we don't have a lot of politics," says CIO Doug Caddell. A provider of e-discovery software, Chicago-based kCura has about 360 employees. It's been growing rapidly, and Caddell says the company's culture helps foster growth. "It's a competitive advantage," he says, "and we see that when we're recruiting: kCura is really a desired place to come to work."

Before joining kCura, Caddell was CIO at a big law firm, and he says there's a stark difference between the two employers' cultures. "The partners in the law firm are all owners of the business, and everyone thinks they're in charge," he explains.

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