Learning the culture

Successfully joining a new organization is often a challenge. It means getting to grips not just with the job content, the admin stuff – like where are the printer toner cartridges kept – but also with the 'way things are done round here'. At any level this is difficult but for senior people it seems to be even more problematic as they are expected to 'hit the ground running' in both job performance and socialization.

My doctoral research was on this topic and from it I wrote a series of checklists to help senior new hire integrate successful into a new organization. (Available from the UK's Chartered Institute of Management – numbers 202 – 210)

For a newcomer to the organisation learning the culture is almost equivalent climbing Mount Everest – it is not for the faint-hearted. In a survey conducted at IMD (a management school in Lausanne, Switzerland). "Fully 87% of the 143 survey respondents either agreed or strongly agreed with the statement, 'Transitions into significant new roles are the most challenging times in the professional lives of managers.' And more than 70% agreed or strongly agreed that 'success or failure during the transition period is a strong predictor of overall success or failure in the job.''

What makes for success is the ability to simultaneously fit in socially and get on in performance terms. This has very little to do with perceived technical or professional expertise of the newcomer and a lot to do with their personality and their ability to learn the culture. One headhunter made this point succinctly when he said, 'People are hired for their ability and fired for their personality.' – a point reinforced by a head of a coaching firm saying, "The combination of your performance and your personality determines how you're viewed. Probably 95% of firings are the result of failing to fit into a company's culture. If people don't know you, they can't trust you."

Highlighting the fact that personality is key and that integration into the culture takes skill, Judi Bevan, in her book "The Rise and Fall of Marks and Spencer – and How it Rose Again" tells the story of the decision, in November 1998, by the non-executive directors, to appoint Peter Salsbury – an M & S insider – to the role of CEO, describing him as "essentially a competent 'nice guy'". He was a default choice as, aware that they needed someone to transform the company from a "bureaucratic old-fashioned company into a modern dynamic force" the non-executives "had asked headhunters to put up some candidates from other companies in the UK, but, according to them, they did not discover an outstanding retailer who could work with the unique M & S culture."

This example illustrates the reality that people joining an organisation or moving to a new role within their organisation have to learn the culture and subculture(s) in order to operate successfully within them. Although most of the ways that newcomers approach learning the culture are the same as the ways established organisation members continue to learn it for new joiners the stakes are that much higher.

Whether a visitor, an immigrant, or a new employee integrating into an unknown culture requires the individual to have the capability to navigate and network effectively. To do this means being skilled at asking questions, making connections, analysing and interpreting a wide range of new information, establishing rapport, and demonstrating credibility – all without coming across in a way that puts people off. Fortunately it is possible people can learn, or be taught, how to do this effectively if four factors are in place:

1. The joiner has the attributes and the ability to learn 'the way we do things round here', including ways of behaving, operating, and thinking as well as norms and values.
2. The joiner has the capacity to learn this within an acceptable time frame.
3. Established employees are willing to support and help the newcomer.
4. The new joiner can and will pay the 'price of membership'

Each of these are discussed in more detail in my forthcoming book Organisation Culture to be published in July 2010.