Company Culture is more than words

Or- your culture is more than your developers.
[Disclaimer: This is based on observing the industry and an amalgamation of many peoples past job experiences. It does not represent any one company or person’s experiences, past or present. ]
I was doing everything right. My laptop was closed, the projection screen showing a high level status dashboard, as I focused on looking around the room. Pen in hand I was ready to capture actions and issues that came up in the meeting. I was making sure to focus on saying “we” and not “I”, asking short questions and not monologing. In short I was being the perfect project manager.
And the meeting was an absolute total failure.
Bob was slumped in his chair, offering monosyllabic responses to questions that he once went on for minutes at a time. Tech Writer, Sue’s fingers were unusually still, odd given she usually can put in a 1000 words during a meeting. Even James, the intern was unusually “un-chipper”. I’m pretty sure he was doing the Smart Phone prayer and updating Facebook under the table edge, James never used to use tech in the meetings.
“So, Jake” I ask the engineering manager. “Where are we with the plan for how we’ll update the web store once we release?”
Jake give a non-committal shrug. “I’m waiting for a response back from IT. “
I blinked, biting back and urge to sound frustrated. What the heck was going on? We were three quarters through the release. Things were going great, no major bugs, issues, risks. Heck the brass had even thrown a ‘developer’s BBQ’ just last week to show their appreciation for all their hard work. Why the hell were they acting like someone had died?
“Someone did,” and like a bad stock tip Hogarth was perched on the edge of the table.
Deeply annoyed I said, “now what? Their some of the best paid devs around, they just got a party, the brass just got done talking about how valuable they are. Why are they acting like it’s a funeral?”
“‘Cause culture is more than your developers…”
So we’re going to talk about a pretty ugly gorilla today. 
Tell me if you have heard this?
  “Our culture is who we are.”
  “Investing in all of you, is how we will succeed.”
  “Together we win.”
  “It is our employees, that make us so strong.”
All right, following me so far? I’m sure most of you have sat in a company all-hands and heard something similar to this. Now some companies have done an incredible job converting these words, into reality. Google is famous for its culture, Japanese car companies at one time were the epitome of this. Read Fortune, Fast Company or any other leading business periodical, you’ll find showcase articles. Fortune actually devotes an entire issue to it, every year. Oh and it’s not a high tech thing either, Fortune’s 2009 list had a financial company, a  super market chain and a hospital all in the top ten. One of the things that makes these companies so compelling, is how they create a bond of trust and respect with their employees.
“Yeah sure,” mutters Hogarth, “but you don’t mean payroll right? We can outsource payroll and save a bundle.” Peeling an onion, he takes a big bite. Talking through spray of onion bits he asks, “How about IT? Everyone’s cutting IT now. Give a months severance and get ’em out of the way so we can focus on the real company. I mean after all, we don’t need them to ship the product, it’s the developers that matter, right?”
And the “What is culture” gorilla looms over the discussion.
Some companies have conducted these “streamlinings”, “resiliency protections”, “austerity measures” and in the process managed to shatter their corporate culture. 
Wikepedia defines corporate culture as,  The total sum of values , custom, traditions, meanings that make a company unique.” That’s the total sum, not just the developers or core money makers, but the total sum of the company. 
One would think that we would have learned from the last downturn. The Dot.com crash was just a decade ago, but I look around, not just the high tech industry, but corporate America as a whole and I see the same patterns.  Companies are slicing through their budgets like a drowning man .
 It’s a proven fact, that companies that invest in their employees, have more productive and happy employees. They are often noted for their innovation (look again to the example of Google or Apple).  They do not always have the largest market share or the biggest bank roll, but when it comes to people wanting to work there, they have people camping in their lobbies to try and get an interview.  I no longer remember the name of the company, but one of the most striking companies I ever heard about, was in an article in Fortune. It was so compelling, I actually sat there and thought about how I could change industries and move across the country, for a chance to work for this little 400 person company.
I’m not saying companies have to hold onto every employee, never outsource and never change, but they can’t believe it won’t have an impact on the survivors. Tina Turner sang in one of the Mad Max theme songs “the living will envy the dead.” If a company is not careful, they will shatter their culture in the process of surviving. There are dozens of companies in Silicon Valley that probably could have survived, had they been intelligent about ‘right sizing’.
So what can you, as the project manager, do? Unfortunately there is little you can do about what a company may or may not do with “right sizing”, or how their “austerity measures” upset employee morale.  What you can do is be an even better listener. Spend more time on your Project Management One-on-Ones, your MBWA (management by walking around). Give people a safe outlet to vent and talk. Often that’s just what they need. Go crack open 7 Habits and review your empathic listening skills. But remember! You still work for the company. You don’t bitch about the changes, you support them and you support your team. You listen and you keep being effective and there.
Joel BC
Veteran, the Project Manager wars
Want me to talk to your gorilla? Send me an email
You can follow me on twitter, @JBC_PMP

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