The Character of a Corporation: How Your Company’s Culture Can Make or Break Your Business

Summary
Goffee and Jones – the BBC director of human resources – reject the assumption of some business books that the character of a corporation is a uniform, single concept. They see it as complex and multiple-faceted.

Every firm is composed of several cultures, they explain. These are fluid, liable to change, and are sometimes good and sometimes bad.

The authors maintain that there is no single ‘right’ culture and that what is right for one corporation may be wrong for another. ‘HR directors,’ says Goffee, ‘might see themselves as guardians of their company’s culture and recruit personality types accordingly. It is their job to monitor how culture is evolving and decide what to do about it.’

Why is it worth reading?

The Character of a Corporation sets out to give employees and their managers the means to assess the cultural make-up of their own organization – and make it better.

By posing a series of questions and statements about culture to their readers, Goffee and Jones advise managers on how to manage culture and job-seekers on which cultures best suit their personalities.

The book provides a list of sensible insights, like ‘know what your goals are’, ‘hold people accountable for tasks’ and ‘talk straight – don’t bullshit’. ‘Resist the temptation to let friendship get in the way of business decisions’, they advise, but ‘keep talking to people’. These fortune cookie-like pieces of advice come after 200 pages of discussions, questions and cultural scenarios about corporate culture.

Talking points

The authors define four distinct types of culture: networked (friendly), mercenary (hard-nosed), fragmented (solitary) and communal (friendly and hard-nosed).

  • Networked: you belong to this culture if your work and home lives blur, your colleagues are your friends and you all go to each others’ family parties. ‘Sociability is one way of holding things together during good times and bad,’ Goffee told us.
  • Mercenary: if you work on Sunday and never chat socially to your colleagues, you belong to a culture where the bottom line is results and performance. ‘The life/work division is virtually non-existent in mercenary cultures,’ Goffee says. ‘People work long hours, but when they get home at night, you can bet they don’t phone each other up.’ By contrast, people in networked cultures ‘end up marrying each other’.
  • Fragmented: characterized by low sociability and low solidarity – ‘we don’t have a culture!’ Employees get on with their own work and may not know the people who share the same office
  • Communal: this culture combines networked and mercenary elements, friendship and absolute business focus. This is a balance that makes employees thrive and business rivals quake in their boots.

According to Goffee and Jones, all of the above cultures exist in different measures in different corporations and within individual corporations.

The book also gives practical advice about how to strike the right balance between a relaxed culture (defined as ‘sociability’) and a ruthlessly business-minded one.

The advantages of ‘sociability’ between colleagues include friendship, the shared ideas and chatting about work after hours, the authors explain. The disadvantages include sloppiness, reluctance to criticize the work of friends and low accountability.

‘Strong cultures’, Goffee told to us, ‘reach from the top to the bottom of organizations and encompass everyone.’ They combine a balance of hard work and friendliness at all levels.

Goffee says that when ‘some traditional high sociability network cultures have tried to become more goal-oriented, more focused, they have brought in people from mercenary backgrounds. The mercenaries get eaten alive – they expect people to do things when they say so…!’

Goffee adds that when people who are suited to one type of culture move to another, they are in grave danger of experiencing career transition difficulties.

Quotes

‘When you join a company, you join its culture.’

‘Because culture is so invisible – compared to factory configurations or balance sheets, for instance – it is extremely complicated to manage.’

‘Suppose a good friend of yours has just been hired by this company. He’s starting Monday morning. What do you tell him are the rules of survival?’

‘We would argue that one of the great mistakes of the business literature on culture is to assert that culture is uniform – that is, to claim that Sony has one type of culture or that Disney or General Electric can be described with one cultural label.’

What others say

Gary Hamel, co-author of Competing for the Future and chairman of US-based business strategy consultants Strategos: ‘Culture, like synergy or competence, is one of those words which is evocative yet ethereal…In The Character of a Corporation, Goffee and Jones succeed where many others have failed: they manage to pin down the butterfly of corporate culture, making the elusive tangible.’

Authors

Rob Goffee is professor of organizational behavior at the London Business School and a management consultant specializing in organizational change, corporate culture and management development.

Gareth Jones was appointed BBC director of human resources and legal affairs in November 1999. In this role he has advised new director general Greg Dyke on restructuring the UK public service broadcaster. Jones is also the BT professor of organizational development at Henley Management College and has written books on organizational change, gender issues at work and organizational culture. He is visiting professor of organizational behavior at INSEAD.

Details

The Character of a Corporation, by Rob Goffee and Gareth Jones, was first published in 1998 by HarperBusiness. It is available in paperback. ISBN 000 6530524

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