You're looking for your next career opportunity and have made a list of the "must haves". One thing you know for sure is that you don't want to work in a bureaucratic or political environment. Been there and done that.
The problem is how are you going to find out in an interview whether the culture is right for you or not?
One of the mistakes candidates often make is to ask general questions about the company, job, people, etc. They may ask, "Is this a bureaucratic environment?" and get relieved to hear that it's not. Only to take the job and find out it is! They asked the question but wonder why they didn't get the real picture.
The key is to ask specific questions that will give you the details. Asking broad questions leads to subjective answers.
Here's what to ask to find out if the culture is right for you:
What kinds of people (personality traits, working style, etc.) typically succeed at your company? Listen carefully to the responses that are given. If the person tells you that people who "burn the midnight oil" are successful, or that they like to joke that "if you don't come in on Saturday, don't bother coming in on Monday", you'll know that this environment is one in which putting in a lot of hours is the norm and expected. If you are trying to find balance in your life between work and personal, this should be a red flag for you. Some organizations value people who win at all costs. As long as the deal gets done, they don't care about the process or if people were alienated along the way. Ideally, the types of people who succeed are those who develop their teams, deliver results and work collaboratively.
Which department is the most influential? This will tell you what drives the company. If you're in marketing and you hear engineering, you might find this a frustrating environment. Dig a little deeper and ask from what department the CEO came from. If s/he came from the finance department, that may be a clue as to where the emphasis is for the company. Similarly, if the CEO came from marketing or manufacturing, that may be an indication of the perspective they would take on growing the company.
How are conflicts resolved? This is a very important question to ask, because it gets at the heart of how a company runs and the culture it fosters. Preferably things are resolved between parties and then escalated if needed. If, however, the response you are given indicates that there are ongoing powers struggles between departments and that the battles are fought with the intent of determining which department is stronger (versus doing what is best for the company), be aware that you may be stepping into a volatile environment. And if you don't like frequent conflict, better stay away from this company!
How are ideas presented? Companies are always looking for good ideas. Is there a forum for presenting ideas, or is it less formal? How do ideas from all levels get funneled through the organization? In some companies formal written recommendations/ideas are channeled up through the organization, with modifications and changes being made by various people in senior management as the document works its way to the CEO. Ultimately, that recommendation may be presented to the CEO by the EVP, even though the idea came from a lower level management (or non-management) person. In other companies, an idea may be presented directly to the CEO from whoever came up with the idea, and it may be presented verbally without all the analysis having been completed. Which format are you more comfortable with?
How are decisions made? Some companies are command and control. All decisions are made at the top and get pushed down to middle management. Other companies are consensus driven, which means decisions can drag out in the process of getting everyone to agree. Other companies empower people at multiple levels to make decisions that affect their area. During the course of your interviews, ferret out how decisions are made and ask about how the smaller decisions are made versus the larger, more strategic ones. This will be an indication of whether top management sets the strategy and then lets lower level management make the tactical decisions or whether all decisions are made through top management. Be honest with yourself about the type and style of company management you are most comfortable working in.
How does the company deal with people who are not performing? Do they try to work with that individual to help them raise their performance to an acceptable level or do they very quickly attempt to weed out the underperformers and transition them out of the company? Or, do they try and determine what skills the person has and then find another place for them in the organization? This is an important element of a company's culture, as it gets at the heart of how they view the individual and the success of the company. Are you the type of manager who wants to work with an underperforming employee and try to bring them "up to speed" or are you more comfortable cutting your losses more quickly and transitioning that person out of the company? How your interviewers respond to this question will provide excellent insight into the culture of the company.
As recruiters, we know that the cultural fit for a candidate with a company is critical to long term success. Candidates and companies owe it to themselves to do their due diligence on the issue of cultural compatibility during the interview process. It's worth the effort!
Fred & Gladys
Executive Search and Coaching
Authors of GOAL! Your 30 Day Career Plan for Business & Career Success