Mona West (MBA’96) conducted a successful job search in 2009 after being downsized out of her marketing job during the recession. Her stellar CPG marketing credentials helped her land the seemingly “perfect” job: a top position in a well-regarded and rapidly-growing company leading the launch of a multi-million dollar new product line where she would define the go-to-market strategy. Not only that, she was offered a solid compensation package and direct access to the executive leadership team. What could go wrong? Within days she was questioning her decision, within weeks she was feeling quite unhappy and within six months she had left the company.

Mona explains it succinctly: “Despite over ten years of relatively easy career success, this job just felt HARD, every day. Doing the tiniest things felt like pushing a rock uphill. Social events were painful because we had little in common to chatter about. More importantly when it came time to work through difficult business decisions, we struggled because we had not been able to build camaraderie and trust. In the end, I got tired, disengaged, and ultimately moved on. It’s still a good company, with great people. I learned, painfully, it was the ‘perfect job’….for someone else!”

Mona’s situation illustrates a classic problem in job satisfaction: cultural mismatch. Company culture is defined as the shared values and practices of an organization’s employees. What Mona had overlooked was how that company’s culture fit with her personal values and individual style. The collective experiences and personalities of a company’s employees contribute to company culture, in both intended and unintended ways. Large and long-standing companies typically have a highly entrenched culture that is easy to pinpoint. Emerging companies and start-ups can have a distinct culture but it may be more fluid and dynamic. In any company, culture naturally changes and evolves over time with the addition (and exit) of personnel.

When you’re in a company that fits closely with your values and style, things will feel very natural – you may not even notice the culture. But, when things change or when you’ve outgrown your company’s culture, you may become dissatisfied. Some hints that you’re in a cultural mismatch are feelings of frustration, boredom, cynicism, and conflict. If you find yourself continually exasperated or discouraged with work in general, you may need to assess your “cultural fit.” Having a keen sense of your own personal values and working style is just as important as understanding your hard skills and professional aspirations. Working with one of the Armstrong Center’s Career (ACS) Coaches can help you consider your situation and determine the best course of action.

Clues to Company Culture

Culture manifests itself in an organization’s:

  • physical environment (e.g., dress codes, office layout or design, décor)
    policies (e.g., codes of conduct, ethics)
  • communication methods and style (e.g., language, leadership)
    decision making (e.g., speed, inclusion)
  • symbols (e.g., public relations, branding)
  • stories and legends (e.g., corporate history and lore)\
  • daily work practices (e.g., how teams form, how meetings are conducted, etc.)

One alumnus that ACS recently worked with had achieved what seemed to be a great deal of success at an emerging health services firm: four promotions in four years each with growing responsibilities, ultimately landing his targeted functional role as product manager. Yet he still didn’t feel a sense of satisfaction. He created his own personal “gap analysis” comparing “What I Want” with “What I Have” on a variety of dimensions. He concluded that the company is a great place, just no longer the best culture for him.

Here’s the bottom line: You can’t grow and thrive where you don’t fit, and you shouldn’t stay where you don’t feel comfortable. Sometimes that can mean a change in function, division or career track inside your current company. But when you’re searching for a new job, finding a great culture match is as important a consideration as the typical issues of title, responsibilities, compensation and location. Look broadly at the culture (see “Clues to Company Culture” box) and ask thoughtful questions during your networking and interviews. Asking directly “How does this company guide its culture?,” or, “What do you find most remarkable about your company’s culture?” can be useful, but consider digging deeper into the clues for a real picture. Ask, for example, “How does the position I’m considering participate in key decisions?” or “What do people do for fun here?” And also ask yourself “Do I really understand this company’s mission…..does it fit with my personal values?,” and “What kind of people do I enjoy working with most (and why)?”.

So, how did Mona’s story turn out? She grudgingly launched another job search, but the cultural mismatch experience led to a clearer focus and a determination to land a job in an industry and company that “fit” her personal values and style. She happily reports, “I’ve since started a new job that IS the perfect job for me. How do I know? Because it is in an industry I care deeply about, I truly enjoy my coworkers, and getting stuff done is as natural as breathing. Don’t settle for anything less!”

Marty Speight (MBA ’96)
Associate Director of the Armstrong Center for Alumni Career Services