Corporate culture transcends Friday beer blasts and company softball tournaments. The cultural distinctions between an investment bank on Wall Street and a Bay Area startup are obvious — Brooks Brothers versus the Gap, briefcases versus messenger bags. Less obvious is the correlation between corporate culture and personal success. When researching potential employers, job seekers too often base their opinions on factors such as company financials and industry — important measures, but only part of the equation. Many fail to seek out the fundamental cultural elements that will affect their work experience.
A company’s mission — and the values that fuel that mission — reveal more about a company’s corporate culture than a foosball table or a 401(k) program ever could. In order to unearth those values, a potential recruit must consider the language used by different company leaders to describe their organizations. Oftentimes, two companies working in the same industry with similar clients will differ significantly in the culture arena.
Fast Company sat down with Bill Ziegler, director of global recruitment at Andersen Consulting, and Matt Mahoney, COO of Creative Good, to find out how the two consulting companies approach the battle for talent and how culture shapes their respective strategies. Almost instantly, the two leaders drew a sharp distinction between their organizational values: Andersen favors performance-based rewards, and Creative Good favors relationships and communication. Where would you excel?
Andersen employs roughly 65,000 people in 48 countries. Many consultants flock to this Big Five firm because it serves several very visible clients, and because it a commands a large price for its high-quality work.
Andersen’s national recruiters must fill 4,000 to 6,000 consulting slots each year in the United States. Roughly 65% of these are entry-level positions; the rest are in senior management. These staggering numbers demonstrate the recruiting and retention challenges faced by Bill Ziegler.
“Andersen CEO Joe Forehand broadcast the explicit message that we must win the talent war in order to grow successfully,” Ziegler says. “The firm has committed itself to employee satisfaction and retention, as well as to aggressive recruitment strategies. People, partners, and leadership will be held accountable for employee satisfaction and retention as part of this commitment.”
Recently, Andersen rolled out an additional compensation program designed to compete with the stock options offered by startups to Andersen employees during the dotcom fever. This program, called “eUnits,” survived the April crash and continues to expand.
The company has invested $200 million in pre-IPO investments on behalf of its employees, who receive eUnits according to their loyalty and to their performance beginning on their three-year anniversary with Andersen. To win back former employees, Andersen has expanded the eUnits program to alumni who previously worked at the company for at least three years. In the wake of the dotcom meltdown, Andersen has noticed a swelling tide of boomerang employees: Over 100 consultants returned to Andersen’s U.S. offices in the first month of the eUnits alumni program, from September 2000 to October 2000.
Overall, the Andersen culture emphasizes high standards, high profiles, high expectations, and tangible rewards. Insiders describe it as an entrepreneurial meritocracy where performance determines success, and success buys you the freedom to shape your career.
Creative Good is a 35-person strategy-consulting firm based in New York, San Francisco, and Boston that stands behind a “mission to improve the online customer experience.”
In short, Creative Good is in the business of creating and bolstering good companies by advising on organizational structure, by designing and implementing workshops and training sessions for employees, and by working to foster healthier cultures within client organizations. The company believes that you must create a good employee experience to offer a good customer experience.
For this small, young company, retention is a paramount concern in today’s tight labor market. To tackle this challenge, Creative Good has reframed its solution from the standard expansion of compensation to a new concept of the workplace.
“As an employee, I don’t see myself as something to be retained, or as part of a business goal,” says Matthew Mahoney. “At Creative Good, we ask what our people want and why they come to work. I can’t make people stay, but I can allow them to create meaning and to craft our organization into an environment that fosters and encourages growth.”
Toward this goal, Creative Good focuses on collaborative workshops, full-staff meetings, and a company-wide emphasis on relationships and communication — from the customer to the client, to the employees of Creative Good, and to the company’s leaders.
Creative Good’s workshops with Performance of a Lifetime, a group that brings theater and improvisation into the workplace, are perhaps the most innovative of these gatherings. These sessions focus on developing leadership skills, improving commmunication, building teams, and shaping company culture. Creative Good brings its clients and candidates, as well as its full staff, to the Performance of a Lifetime studio, in New York City’s SoHo, every six months.
In addition, the company holds full-staff meetings every week, called “Firm Fridays,” that usually last three hours. These sessions involve team updates, talks, and guest speakers. Mahoney says Firm Fridays help “close the loop on learning,” and contribute to the training of new hires.
“We think of hiring and training as a relationship that begins at first contact,” Mahoney says. “We begin to build relationships early so that new hires are already indoctrinated once they come aboard. Just as we value our customers’ entire experience, starting with the first interaction, we value our candidates’ entire experience, starting with the first interview. We are dedicated to all of the relationships we foster.”
Overall, the culture at Creative Good emphasizes action and risk taking, open communication, growth, and active listening — to its clients and to each other. It is described as a “people-centric” organization that places technology behind individuals, and rewards passion and creativity at work.
The words Ziegler used — compensation, bonuses, prestige, resources, and rewards — reflect Andersen’s core values. Matt Mahoney stressed communication, relationships, creativity. and growth — themes central to people-centric Creative Good.
To excavate the values of an organization, the questions you ask should be open-ended, and they should remain consistent across different companies in the same industry for effective comparison. Have potential employers discuss their organization’s culture, and listen closely to the language they emphasize. Before you are swept up by prestige or a cool-looking office, ask yourself if what you hear is consistent with your ideals.