Years ago, I arrived early for a 7:30 a.m. meeting with the CEO of an IT training company and a consultant to discuss developing and promoting a new course to foster people skills for tech nerds conspicuously lacking these skills. The office was closed at that hour, so I stood outside waiting when in pulled a swank white Jag, from which emerged a grey nimbus of hair, followed by a crisp pinstriped suit. Arthur the consultant (not his real name) theatrically shot his French cuffs, gathered himself and walked toward me. We chatted for several minutes
before the CEO arrived and led us to his office.
Arthur had a reputation for helping companies “find their mission” via his “patented” six-step discovery process. His shtick was to live at a company for a month, immerse himself in their culture. Then, in dramatic fashion, he’d deliver, as if from a burning bush, a document of startling brevity and insight that distilled everything he divined about the company into five canonical bullets.
We took our seats, and just as the CEO began the introductions, Arthur cut in, demanding assurance that if he’s going to give us the benefit of his pending “brain dump,” we won’t go off and package his “ideas” as our own — ideas he’d spent his career honing into an exact science. I broke the tension by assuring him that I’d never do such a thing, on condition that he gave me the number of his tailor.
This was my first encounter with the concept of company culture. For years after, I’d associate it with “brain dump”: something you carefully stepped around. Eventually, I came to appreciate the importance of culture — particularly when I read statistics that estimate 49% of people have thought about leaving their current organization, and one in four dreads going to work.
Since my Arthur encounter, I’ve been enlisted several times to help companies write their mission statement, which is essentially a way of codifying the culture. Frankly, it’s not a particularly creative exercise, as all companies inevitably arrive at the same place; I’ve yet to meet one that doesn’t want to be ethical, collaborative, transparent or fun — though I’ve met (and worked for) companies that, despite their high-minded mission statements, were quite obviously none of those things.
Contrary to Arthur’s “scientific” approach or any statement of company principles, a company’s culture is a living thing — it’s not so much instructional as it is epidemiological. A toxic boss is not going to be improved by a stirring mission statement; there’s no surgical mask or hand sanitizer equivalent that will stop the toxicity from spreading and infecting the workplace.
Per Maya Angelou’s famous dictum, when a CEO or minions thereof tell you who they are, believe them, not their mission statement. That’s not to say a toxic or dysfunctional culture can’t be turned around, but it takes more than a declaration. It’s more like a play that needs to be workshopped in front of live audiences over many months before it’s put into production. In other words, a mission statement alone is not enough — in fact, it’s usually about as useful as a public brain dump, though it’s debatable which is the bigger health hazard.