A Distinctly American Corporate Culture

As Appeared in Chief Executive

As a CEO who spends countless hours studying, nurturing and yes, obsessing, over every nuance of our company’s culture, I was intrigued when I read a recent email from a trusted advisor, whom I’ll call “Jill.” Jill, who has observed the growth of our company for many years, complimented our “wonderful culture” but followed her compliment with an unusual comparison. In admittedly broad terms, she compared the development of our culture with that of…the United States.

I didn’t see that one coming. Though I consider myself a long-time student of corporate culture, such a comparison had never even crossed my mind. But I did immediately understand the basis for the comment, and, upon further reflection, I think there is a great learning opportunity for us and many others around the concept.

Jill called out our culture in this way because our company spent its first 25 or so years steadily growing in an entirely organic fashion. We then adopted a plan to introduce a merger-and-acquisition strategy to enhance, accelerate and enrich our organic growth. Over the next 10 years (give or take a few months), we engaged in 12 strategic transactions, growing our company exponentially relative to our first 25 years of growth. In the process, we added offices across the country, populated by hundreds of new team members, many of whom joined us through these strategic transactions.

The phenomenon that Jill was observing is that each of the teams that has joined us instinctively tends to cling, at least in some ways, to the past in which it was rooted. They all wanted to join us, but, despite all of our processes around what we call “integration”, they invariably struggle to balance their desire to be part of a larger, greater whole with maintaining their own unique culture. In this general sense, these teams are comprised of people who, like the many people who have come to America, have traveled to a new home in which native customs look different from their own. Said differently, they bring with them their own customs, their own learnings, and their own experiences — and they are confronted rather immediately with new customs, new learnings and new experiences, many of which are foreign and uncomfortable to them.

It’s a useful metaphor, though I do acknowledge the dramatic difference between joining a new company and moving to a new country, sometimes under great physical and psychological duress. That said, think about our American culture, from which Jill’s comparison was derived. Is there really a single, readily identifiable American culture? Long ago, it became popular to call our country a “melting pot.” For some, this term may have idealized the blending of multiple cultures into a single American culture. Today, while some may still hold this ideal, we have been growing away from idealizing cultural assimilation. Instead, most of us have come to value and appreciate the preservation of cultures brought to us from abroad, understanding that our strength as a nation is derived not from our homogeneity but by our heterogeneity – our diversity. Of course, as part of a single country, we do need to follow the same, mutually agreeable laws, and we do need to stand together for our common betterment and against common challenges; but we, as a country, progressively understand the importance of doing so with the benefit of different perspectives that are derived from different experiences. We may have some amorphous, overarching mass culture, but we also have many and varied subcultures, each one of which contributes in its own way to the greater whole, and many of which (though not all) came to us from abroad.

In this sense, I agree with Jill’s comparison, which probably applies to most companies that have grown both organically and inorganically over the years. We have a single overall culture, a description of which is beyond the scope of this article, but we also have many complementary subcultures, some of which came to us from external sources. I say “some” because some of our subcultures have developed organically over time by virtue of differences in geography, function, or other shared experiences, including personal backgrounds. These subcultures must be acknowledged and valued too.

Can we accept that this type of multicultural construct likely exists, and should exist, in any company of substantial size? Can we see it as a strength and not as a weakness – especially in light of all the pundits who speak about culture as if it is and should be a singular, unified phenomenon? I most certainly do, and I think that those who seek to describe a single culture of and for their company are likely missing the reality of, and opportunity presented by, their multiple cultures.

To be clear, there was also a warning in Jill’s metaphor. In any multicultural construct within a single company, team members must still operate consistently and together under a unified framework as they work together toward common, shared goals. Their differences are no excuse for a full stop along the pathway forward (though they might justify a pause to check on direction). But growing companies must also commit themselves to understanding the strength and power that can be derived when a company fully respects and nurtures its subcultures. We must see them not as something to be feared or rooted out but something to be valued and relied upon – a lesson that we are still learning in corporate America and, indeed, America itself.