Organisational Culture: Of Shared Lunches; Hired People; Peak Performance and Buyouts

1 Feb


“The soul takes nothing with her to the next world but her education and her culture” : Plato

As I sit at the brink of another weekend, I was thinking about the last one. It was a busy one. But three very distinct things happened, all with a common thread:

a) According to my husband, we had an overdose of culture – we went to watch The Manganiyar Seduction, a fantastic opera like performance of Rajasthani music; went to the Chitra Santhe, a street art festival; watched Matru Ki Bijlee ka Mandola, and started vocal music, guitar and drums classes (the first 2 for me, and the last for hubby – maybe!)

b) Had a chat with other moms while waiting to collect child from drama class – the topic of discussion was schools – and in describing the 2 schools my older daughter has been to – I said – “Prakiya had middle class values, Inventure is more “Hi-Fi”” :). We also incidentally then got sidetracked into a discussion of what kids were reading – I used to read Enid Blyton ad nauseum, my kids find her boring and read Wimpy Kid/ Percy Jackson, Junie B Jones/ Horrid Henry instead (different ages 🙂 ). They also seem to be much more excited about Halloween (prompting my mum to say “everyone has forgotten “Pitra-Paksh” – the Hindu equivalent where you pray for yr dear departed forbearers – and is roaming the streets, weirdly attired, collecting candy 🙂 ) and Christmas, than they are about Ganesh Chaturthi and Onam! And my theory was – a) there is far greater access to “global” material and traditions now, their peer group has all lived in different countries, and, b) while we growing up had a very British influence on us (still colonial hangover-ish maybe), these kids are decidedly American – they watch American TV, read American books, study in American schools.

c) Realised that a bunch of my friends’ updates on facebook were on running, specifically the Mumbai Marathon. I realised how things change – Running is to fitness-among-older people now what Golf used to be a few years ago; just as Rumi is the new Che Guevara, Single Malt is the new beer (alas) and Barbecue at home is the new eating out (I’m sure Weber sales are skyrocketing)

As I said – 3 unrealted things, but got me started thinking on “culture”, specifically “organisational culture”. Also on how one creates culture, how it changes organically, and then how something like an M&A impacts it.


I remembered how in Gillete, where I worked for some 3 years, everyone drank Vodka – because the then CEO Pradeep Pant drank it. In Blow Plast, another company where I worked again for some 3 years, most people sang – so corporate parties would end up with vocal performances…

A nostalgic look back reminded me of EmPower’s early days – a) This was a motley group – 2 consulting types from Booz Allen, 1 ex teacher/ trainer and entrepreneur, but also American; and me. None of us knew all 3 others, some of us hadn’t even seen some of the others. We worked cross geography, hence spent many hours on phone calls and the net. In the beginning, as we hired, it was more – get who-so-ever you can (not to say we didn’t run interviews etc, but it was really a case of being a sellers’ market). Gradually, one saw a pattern beginning to emerge – maybe because of the personality type of the Indian promoters in charge of operations, or because we were based in the south of India – we started seeing a “type” of person being hired – in general middle class, hard working, “gentle”, didn’t necessarily “know” everything, but we felt cd be versatile….
Over a period of time, as we grew, we evolved different departments – and then realised, before we even had a “ONE EMPOWER” culture, we had 2 different divisional cultures! This caused us angst in the beginning, and there was much “leaderspeak” on – hey guys, get together more!, but after a time, we let it be. Even later, we figured we really had 5 microcosms almost within our small company – the 3 operating groups, the what we called “foundation” groups (support) and the market facing bizdev groups. They were very different – look at what a typical Friday evening wd see them doing – ROD wd go in smaller groups of 3 and 4 to the movies – they were always the first to see every new one; BD wd go to a pub/ restaurant; foundation would relax at home with family; MM would have potluck snacks in office (if they did have the evening free); ISS would be working if they weren’t celebrating the topical Indian festival with the greatest pomp and joy! hence, culture – distinct though still a part of the whole!

As a contrast, some interesting cultural nuances came from our being an American Client serving company. The usual language gaffes – “Did you know dump is NOT yr raw research, it is slang for poop” or, “when he says “I have a doubt”, does he mean “I have a question”? Or, the big hoohaa about a poor analyst named “Swastika” offending some sensibilities and therefore having to change her email id; the oft-repeated advice – “Please wait for the guy to finish speaking before you start talking” (SOOO Indian, isn’t it?); or, “even if you have nothing to contribute – ALWAYS show that you have an opinion – thats what Americans respect :)”, the correct way of writing American ppts……

(I’m sure most of you know these – but I thought I’d remind you of some cross-cultural gaffes in advertising that have made history. Enjoy:

– When they entered the Chinese market a few years ago, the translation of their slogan “Pepsi Brings you Back to Life” meant, “Pepsi Brings Your Ancestors Back from the Grave”

– In Italy, a campaign for “Schweppes Tonic Water” translated the name into the much less thirst quenching “Schweppes Toilet Water”.

– When General Motors introduced the Chevy Nova in South America, they weren’t selling many cars. They finally realized that in Spanish, “nova” means “it won’t go”. Sales improved dramatically after the car was renamed the “Caribe.”

– Similarly, much after Ford introduced the Pinto in Brazil, they learned that “Pinto” is Brazilian slang for “tiny male genitals.” Ford substituted the name plates with “Corcel,” which means horse.

– When Braniff translated a slogan touting its upholstery, “Fly in Leather,” it came out in Spanish as “Fly Naked.”

– Coors put its slogan, “Turn It Loose,” into Spanish, where it was read as “Suffer From Diarrhea.”)

Ok, so cut back to the whole org culture thing. We were riding along with our sub cultures evident in each group, and yet each group having a great time (it evidenced itself in fixed lunchtime groups – btw, “Senior management” often got criticised for the particularly LOUD lunch sessions we had!”; in hanging out together post work; sending jokes to each other…) but MOST importantly when we recruited fresh people. I will NEVER forget 2 instances that exemplify this – one, where we hired a really senior ops guy from JPMorgan Chase, who wore a suit when he came in first day, spoke about seat utilization as his first large mandate (we were 100 people for heavens’ sake!) , and said a cheesy “HULLOOOO all” when he entered a room – he lasted all of 5 days (and on the 5th, sneaked off home after sending a goobye mail) and another, when we interviewed a really senior, really well qualified Editor from Frost and Sullivan, who came across as very competent, but all wrong for us. To one man (or woman) we voted her not fit! (By that time we had learnt from the earlier episode!)

But see, interestingly, the minute we got acquired, the whole dynamics changed – everyone in our by-then-400-people strong company kind of banded together, with a common protective wall almost, and started asking existential/ culture oriented questions that really came down to – “will we be comfortable in this new culture” (I like to think many of these fears were unfounded, and most people have now found their groove – even though the cultures of the 2 companies, while they had many common values (and that was why we even agreed to the takeover) did have differences – ofcourse they had!. We did lose some people alas – the one statement that I keep remembering most often is “I would have stayed had you not sold the company!” 😦 , but kept most!). But the point was, all the sub cultures that existed prior to the M&A kind of merged into the larger one! Was it because of this “threat” psyche?

org cult

I don’t claim to be an expert on org culture – just read up a few things just now 🙂 – and they all made sense.

First, the definition: Wikipedia told me, Ravasi and Schultz (2006) state that organizational culture is a set of shared mental assumptions that guide interpretation and action in organizations by defining appropriate behavior for various situations. At the same time although a company may have its “own unique culture”, in larger organizations, there are diverse and sometimes conflicting cultures that co-exist due to different characteristics of the management team. A-ha!

The theories are also interesting:

Hofstede’s says: The dimensions of culture are:
The Power distance: How much of “lordly distance” do the bosses keep from their subordinates (our lunch groups admittedly were “senior management” but I’d like to believe we participated wholly together in peoples lives and work!

Uncertainty Avoidance: How you cope with the future. First a startup with low visibility into revenue streams, then in an evolving space so limited view of the future, and finally in an M&A situation – I would like to think we kept our folks well informed, and with a full view of what the uncertainties were. In addition, we involved them in the steps taken to mitigate this uncertainty

Individualism vs. Collectivism : Harmony amongst personal and organisational goals

Masculinity vs. Feminity : Good or bad, it was an org run by 3 women 🙂

Long term vs. short term orientation

Only yesterday, I also read a McKinsey article on an Organisation’s “Meaning Quotient” (you may have to login). This spoke of people, and organisations, displaying “peak performance (equivalent to what sportspeople call – being in the zone) – that can be achieved by maximising its MQ.

I think what really makes for commonality of culture (then leading to better performance, and more importantly, happiness) are:

– Serving a common cause (specially if you are creating something new like in a start-up)
– Being with PLUs – “People Like Us” – Its important to have a comfortable eco-system around you. (could be shared history or just similarity in attitude)
– Ability to use/ exploit skills and resources – Be useful/ use your training – atleast some parts of it
– Opportunity for gain – personal and/or professional – better work/ better money/ better faster responsibilities/ promotions..
– Higher Order Things – Serving society/ your country/ being change agents..
– And finally, EmPowerment (we didnt name our compay EmPower for no reason!). Its what Mckinsey called “writing your own lottery ticket”…

If you look at it, org culture has parallels with India – one country, many many sub cultures. As someone said, Because when you have millions of people with this kind of need for gratification, and the culture is saying that it’s possible for everyone to satisfy all of their needs and desires all of the time, there are obviously going to be clashes – clashes of ego. All these fragmented forces straining against each other – water dispute/ racial slurs and hence movie bans/ territorial wars/ separatism…but, when threatened by an outside force – will they come together? (Just like all our divisions united – to create and display the common EmPower culture under what folks thought was “threat” – it wasn’t really). Rather, put differently, WHAT will make our diverse sub cultures to come toegther and show the unity in diversity that we keep talking about?? Does anyone have any idea? Not me!


3 Responses to “Organisational Culture: Of Shared Lunches; Hired People; Peak Performance and Buyouts”


  1. Stereotypes; and the Bucking of Them (Or Why I #$% Love Science) | joshsang - April 8, 2013

    […] – When you look for examples in org life, I’m sure we’ve all made hiring decisions that are powered by this similar stereotyping thing. Infact, our HR manager, had a clear bias against long hair and ponytails in men – and very often had to work past this bias. I once heard her telling a new hire politely, but with a definite glint in her eye – “it may be neater/ cooler for u to get a haircut”. I always had a bias against men from a certain state in India – in my mind they are almost always lazy, and have an attitude to boot! But we have all seen people that bust these stereotypes, even though organizational culture actually perpetuates really by following patterns/ stereotypes in groups – whether they are cultural/ age or interest related groups. (See related older post on org culture) […]

  2. Communication, the Hallmark of Success | joshsang - August 28, 2013

    […] (See some references to how communication across different cultures has led to interesting gaffes in …) […]

  3. It really is about the PEOPLE | joshsang - November 18, 2013

    […] intangible thing that defines many org metrics – retention/ values/ client service…see my earlier blog on org culture) Its one of the things an org “loses” when it scales to a behemoth – and one of […]

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