New Job? How to Get a Pulse on the Corporate Culture to Avoid Costly Mistakes


If you dont understand the culture of your organization, you dont understand your job. It is that simple. Yet, many transitioning executives find the challenge of trying to understand a new culture to be difficult, and even intimidating.

As such, executives frequently ignore the culture dimension completely, and gamble that their intended approach will mesh with the existing culture, or they casually ask about it in the interviews and mistakenly believe what theyve heard to be the gospel truth. Either strategy can be risky and potentially career limiting.

To maximize potential success, executives starting a new job must have an accurate sense of the true corporate culture before they can decide how to best engage with it. To gain that understanding, you must look well beyond the professed culture. Its not that people and organizations lie about their culture, its just that the officially stated one is often aspirational rather than realistic. There is often a disconnect between the stated culture and the practiced culture, particularly in organizations facing tough challenges.

Culture is best described by the way we really do things here. To know the culture, you must understand the actual norms that exist on a day-to-day basis. That is an extremely hard thing to get a grasp before starting, and that is why many executives put themselves at risk by starting a job without fully understanding the true culture of their new workspace.

BRAVEly Battling Corporate Culture 

To help executives better navigate the treacherous ocean of corporate culture we developed the BRAVE framework to quickly decipher the most important aspects of an organizations culture:

Behaviors: How people act, make decisions, control the business, etc...

Before deciding how you will engage with the culture, you will want to observe whether bosses make decisions unilaterally and tell subordinates what to do, if the culture expects co-created solutions, or if its something in between. Making a mistake on this one will certainly rub your stakeholders the wrong way.

Relationships: How people communicate with others (including mode, manner and frequency), engage in intellectual debate, manage conflict, are rewarded and reprimanded.

Determine if people have a bias of avoiding conflict because it is destructive or welcome it as a constructive way to move ideas forward. Get this wrong and you may be perceived as too passive or overly aggressive.

Attitude: How people feel about the organizations purpose, mission, vision and organizational identity.

Know how your key stakeholders in the organization tend to identify with themselves. Is it as individuals, their sub groups, their division or the organization as a whole? Get this wrong and you could be seen as a lone wolf or someone without the teams interest at heart.

Also, try to identify the organizations attitude on power. Is it institutional, personal or resources-based? This will help you determine how tightly power is controlled or diffused, and provide clues about how realistic your plans are and who or what youll need to get them implemented.

Values: Peoples underlying assumptions, beliefs, intentions, approach to learning, risk, time horizons, etc.

Determine whether the organization is more focused on short or long-term timeframes. Know whether the company cares more about protecting what it has or gaining what it doesnt have. Get this right and youll have a better sense of what you should focus on immediately and how much risk the organization is willing to take in pursuit of its goals.

Environment: The work environment in terms of office space, protocols, d�cor, dress, etc.

Before you start, note how the office space is arranged, its d�cor and the way people dress. Are they more formal or more casual? These environmental clues almost always underscore or reinforce the other BRAVE elements. Understand these clues and youll fit in more quickly.

This framework exposes what stakeholders really do, think, and say about the company and its initiatives. If you deploy BRAVE before you start youll gain a strong sense of the true culture versus the stated culture, which will provide powerful indicators on how you should best proceed in your new job.

Cracking the Culture Conundrum 

Everything an organization does contributes to its culture. It goes well beyond what is officially stated and it is a strong indicator of how you should best identify, consider and make important decisions. Deploy the BRAVE framework before you start in your new role and you will gain priceless insight about the organizations true culture.

The knowledge you gain will enable you to best formulate your approach and implement your initiatives without causing irreparable backlash from your stakeholders. If you havent accurately deciphered the culture before you start, youll risk being spit out like a bad oyster!

Jayme A. Check is the co-founder and managing partner of the executive onboarding group PrimeGenesis, which helps new leaders and their teams deliver better results faster.  He also is co-author of The New Leaders 100-Day Action Plan (third edition to be released in fall, 2011). You can reach Jayme at