Corporate Culture: Your Gut Feeling Is Usually Correct

A good friend of mine is joining an IT giant's storage division. His new employer's corporate culture is known for cutthroat sales tactics and customer lock-in. My pal previously competed with his new employer and had heard some of the culture horror stories. But he's been assured: The division he's joining is isolated from the company's larger cultural challenges. Hmmm...

Do you buy that line? I certainly don't. Even if the business unit operates independently today, at some point the larger corporate empire inflicts its will on all business units.

A few examples -- both good and bad:

1. Cisco Systems: Generally speaking, when the networking giant buys a business the culture changes immediately. From Day One of the deal closing, the acquired company's business cards, logos, phone lines, email, etc., are shifted over to the Cisco brand (again, generally speaking). The net result: Acquired companies almost immediately start thinking the Cisco way -- leaving zero room for confusion about the greater mission: Become Number One or Number Two in all target markets, or exit the markets.

2. Bay Networks: And oldie but a goodie. When SynOptics (network hubs) merged with Wellfleet (switches) in the late 1990s it was a merger of equals with primary offices in Silicon Valley (SynOptics) and Boston (Wellfleet). From the outside looking in, both sides of the business were on equal ground. But on the inside, culture wars soon broke out as leaders from both sides of business struggled to identify their territories -- especially since Wellfleet was actually the buyer, despite all the "we're equal" public chatter. The culture turned sour fast. Bay got gobbled up by Nortel Networks, which later imploded.

3. Symantec: The early 2000s buyout of Veritas looked great on paper. Storage and security were converging on premises. Even better, Symantec could potentially lead the cloud market -- where storage and security were two of the first services moving off premises. Instead, Symantec was late to the cloud wave and moved far too slowly on a range of items. For instance, Symantec kept two legal departments (Symantec and Veritas) long after the deal closed. And integrated products across storage and security were slow to emerge. A decade later, Symantec is now breaking itself up.

As you're mulling a career move or company sale, take a close look at executive leadership at your potential destination company. Then, find a way to meet or hear privately from rank and file employees. Put the two camps together in your mind -- leaders and troops -- and you begin to get a feel for whether the culture is healthy or toxic.

And be extra careful if you're about to join a company that claims your target business division doesn't suffer from a parent's cultural disfunction. Even if the dysfunction isn't present today, I suspect it will come knocking at your office door at some point in the near future. 

Alas, I worry one of my best pals is about to learn that lesson the hard way.