How Well Do You Understand Your Organisation’s Culture?

Coming into a new job of any kind is a challenge, and understanding the prevailing organisational culture is important if any employee wants to succeed. But that is even more pronounced for anyone joining in a senior role. A procurement leader, a director or CPO, who fails to get to grips with the culture will struggle and will often not survive for very long.

“Culture” is defined as the ideas, customs, and social behaviour of a particular people or society. While it was originally used largely when talking about countries or groups of people in wider society, it has become commonplace to talk about organisational culture as well. So, if we believe that understanding our organisation’s culture is important if we want to succeed, then “ideas, customs and social behaviour” is the agenda what we need to consider.

Now in some organisations, it is very hard to define the “culture”, because there is little commonality between the people within it. Ideas may be very different, few customs may have been established with any permanence, and social behaviour may be driven by individuals acting quite differently and independently. It is only where the culture develops some strength – where there is a significant level of consistency in the ideas, customs and social behaviour – that is becomes significant and important to understand.

Sometimes aspects of culture might be fairly obvious. At Mars, where I worked for nine years early in my career, the founding family and their “five principles of Mars” clearly defined many aspects of how staff at all levels were expected to work and behave. A senior manager coming in and ignoring key aspects of the culture - that was both egalitarian yet very competitive, for instance - would not last very long.

In other cases, it may be harder to discern the culture with clarity. More than one CPO has come unstuck by following a strategy around aggregation and centralisation of spend, before discovering eventually that the culture is more devolved than they realised and local autonomy is carefully guarded. Or the CPO is told by their boss to “take a strong line” then finds that actually, only those who can work consensually get anything done.

That raises another interesting point. The CFO or even the CEO might not truly understand the culture, so beware being led astray in the early days. Many people in those roles don’t last very long either!

How can procurement professionals avoid falling into the culture trap? Research before taking any job is key, of course, and the internet has made that far easier than it was 20 years ago. But there is no substitute for talking to people, both before taking up a role and once you are in post.

Talk to a wide variety of people, not just your boss or immediate reports. Try and speak with those who have been around a long time, and those in direct “coalface” roles. I learnt more about the true Mars culture from the people I worked with in the warehouse in my first few months as a graduate trainee than I did from the more formal training. (People tend to talk very openly over a cup of tea at 4am, by the way). Often the culture is expressed in stories, some true, some probably apocryphal – the time the founder threw a product at the production director because the quality was poor, or how the firm helped a retired fork lift driver who had some personal problems.

Of course, you may decide that you want to change the culture, if you are in a senior enough position to aspire to that goal. But even then, understanding the baseline is key, and should inform how you work, the strategies and plans you develop to achieve success.

First Voice

  1. The Lady Doth Protest:

    Fortunately, there’s Glassdoor.co.uk ! Research company culture before you invest or join as employee!

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