Impact Opportunity had the chance to speak with Kristin Brennan, Executive Director, Career Exploration and Development at Bowdoin College, to get her advice on learning what organizational cultures are best for you when exploring a career or job change.
Kristin Brennan: Organizational culture is important to me. Not only because I advise other people, but for my own sake. If you can come up with three or four questions that you feel are helpful to understanding the organization's culture, you can compare the answers you get to your ideal. You're trying to get under the surface answers.
One of the worst ways to uncover the authentic culture of an organization is to ask, "what's the culture like?" For a couple of reasons. People say nice things because they're supposed to say nice things, but they also don't have a vocabulary for it. So, you'll hear three or four of the same words in possibly very different places because it's hard to describe an organization's culture. Culture is the way people behave and what they value, especially when the stakes are high or decisions need to be made. You are trying to get an anthropological look into a moment in an organization, the people around the table, and how they operate. That is really hard to get at.
My favorite question is, "Tell me about someone who's been successful lately." Another really good one is, "tell me about a decision that's been made recently." For the second one, rather than ask it in the abstract, read up on the organization, and say, "I see you all just decided to launch this new product line. I'd love to know how you arrived at that decision." It may tell you something about decision-making at the organization or their revenue model, but you're bound to learn something from asking, "How did this new thing come to be?" or "How did you decide to go this way or that way?" These questions, by the way, were shared with me by a brilliant executive coach colleague, Sasha Grinshpun.
Once you have a couple of questions that produce useful information, you can look back at past iterations of your work-self and the cultures you sat in, how decisions were made, who was celebrated, and figure out what feels like a suitable answer to you. Develop a sense of how did this work in the places I felt the most appreciated and cherished and would like to be treated. How did this operate in places that didn't mesh as well with me? If you value people developers, but you just came out of an organization where they were always less celebrated by the organization than the people who brought in big sales numbers, then you know what answer you're hoping for in the results of asking that question at future organizations. Then you will start to see the patterns in the answers you get and how well they match the ideal culture you have already determined.
Organization Culture Reflection Grid When you want to determine what kind of organizational cultures work best for you, reflect on past work experiences and complete this Culture Reflection Grid.
Then compare future opportunities and see how well they match to the ideal culture you have in mind. Customize the grid with questions that are most helpful to you.
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Career test results show that the people looking for a social impact job often correlate highly with people who have a disproportionate interest in the organization's culture. In other words, they are often the same people, the social impact folks and the people who rank organizational culture as a top consideration in the jobs they will take. I spend a lot of time with people for whom cultural fit is essential, and it has always been really important to me. I acknowledge there are people for whom it is much less critical. But I think what's interesting is to try to find a way of getting at the culture that fits what you're looking for because there is no one perfect description of what the best culture is; it is the best culture for you.
You might rank collaboration and teamwork as your absolute top priority—you'd prefer to work in a place where people come together on joint goals, and you'd rather fail at something together than succeed alone. Someone else is looking for exactly the opposite—someplace where goals are concrete, measurable, and individual, and their individual wins will be telegraphed and celebrated. It's helpful to have open-ended questions to ask and things you can observe in action to find out about the organization's culture.
To the extent you can observe culture rather than ask about it, especially once you become a candidate, it can be very informative. I like to watch how people are in a meeting. Take panel-style interviews. Even though it is somewhat daunting to be put in a room with multiple people interviewing you, this is a huge opportunity to see how the people in the room interact. How does the most senior person in the room, who might also be your future boss, treat the least senior person in the room? I knew I was in good shape when my boss at my current position let the students who were interviewing me speak first and waited to talk last. I watched how they interacted; it gives you a sense of how the hierarchy works or doesn't in the organization. How respectful are people to one another? If you have a panel interview, consider that a gift, a view into organizational dynamics.
Then there are questions you can ask in an informational or actual interview. I mentioned earlier that my favorite is, "tell me about a person who has been successful here lately. Who are they? What did they do?" That tells you a lot about what the place values. It'll get at the culture question again. Is it because they produce big numbers and sales, or are they the best people developer, have the best ideas, and engage people cross-functionally? What does this place actually value? And very important—who is mentioned? If you keep asking this question of different people, are there any themes? Are the people named from the same department, gender, or race? Are they all long-time insiders or new hires?
Besides asking the direct questions around decision making and successful staff I mentioned earlier, the other thing you can do is get as many points of view as possible. People who've left an organization are very useful sources of information. They no longer have a stake in making the place look fabulous. More junior people are also helpful and interesting sources of information. Everyone should be nice to the person at the front desk, always. I have learned not to hire people who are mean to the front desk.
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You can also read Vault and Glassdoor for reviews. However, in my experience, you tend to see the extremes on those sites. You see the people who love the place, possibly they're paid to love the place, and then you also see people who hated the place. But if you see the same cultural thing multiple times over, described specifically and consistently, there's probably something to it, and you can validate it with someone in your research or interviews. Lastly, some organizations put themselves forward very publicly. I find their YouTube channels to be a helpful place. There you see people talking to each other or on a conference panel. You can at least see what they want to be known for, what they're trying to put out in terms of their brand.
A team is very much the imprint of the person running it. You might be looking for two things, evidence that this team has a good culture and the boss is someone you want to work for. You might also be looking for evidence that this place picks good bosses. After all, your own boss might leave. When you look around at the organization's leaders, do you see themes about what is valued in its top people? In your own interview process at the organization, are you seeing evidence of a thoughtful organization that chooses well?
You can tell a lot by what questions they ask you in an interview as well. You can certainly ask them directly, "what's your management style? What do you need out of people who work for you? How do you like to communicate with them?" These questions might be somewhat revealing. And then, when you are pretty far down the road in your interviews, you could ask to speak to some other people who report to that same person. They should say yes to that request.
If possible, getting into the physical space can be helpful. While you are in the office on an interview, and you are waiting for your next meeting or are taking a break, you will see how people interact in the space and how they connect with one another. There was a time I tried to talk myself into a job and realized I couldn't tolerate the physical space. It really bothered me. It was an open warehouse space, and everybody had a spot to be in, but it was loud, and everyone was sitting cheek by jowl. This may seem like a dumb reason not to work there, but I could not work in that space. The people were super nice; I learned that by watching them. But I couldn't imagine functioning there.
If there is no physical office you can visit, there is an emerging sense of what makes for a good online/remote culture. You can see the way people interact in online meetings. Have they built in structures to make sure that they hear from everyone? Or do you see the same person never getting to talk? Did anybody notice that poor person never gets to speak, and are they doing anything about it?
You can get a sense of how people are with each other, even on Zoom. Do they laugh at their jokes? Is that allowed? Is it just all business? Do they seem to refer to things as if they know each other, even though they're on Zoom?
If there is a physical office and you would be working remotely, the other thing I would look for is a travel budget. When I was 100% virtual for two years, I discovered it was not my thing. But the thing that made it possible was plenty of travel money. I could see the people I worked with and build a relationship in-person; even though it was relatively infrequent, it was possible.
I would add that this conversation about culture is also one about diversity, equity, and inclusion. Especially in social impact work, you can't be talking about one without the other. As much as I tried to acknowledge earlier that people can have different preferences about organizational culture—for instance, I acknowledge that there might be job-seekers who really value individual contribution and achievement over everything else—the truth is I'm not neutral about that, you're not neutral about that, and probably no one reading this interview is. Organizations that value teams and work toward genuine inclusion are just better equipped to have social impact. There's plenty of evidence that diverse voices at the table make for better decisions. No organization is perfect, but those of us who aspire to make things better for our fellow human beings in our day-to-day work—we're all searching avidly for signs of genuine inclusion in the organizations we're thinking to join or at least a commitment to self-examination and change for the better. So, for every question and observation about culture above, I'd emphasize listening not just for the "what" but also for the "who." Who leads this organization—staff and board—their biographies and values? Has that changed in the last 10 years, and in which direction? Who is in the room? Who is cited as successful in the organization? Who was included in the decision process they described to you? And do they ask you about your commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion? They should! They should be holding you to the standards that they're striving for themselves; those are going to be good colleagues to build a better organization with.