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What Is Organizational Culture And Why PhDs Must Understand It To Get An Industry Job

what is organizational culture | Cheeky Scientist | understanding organizational culture
Written by Isaiah Hankel, Ph.D.

It was my first industry interview.

And not just for any company, but a Fortune 500 pharmaceutical company.

I had passed the initial phone interview and was asked to come in for a full-day assessment.

I would meet the CEO, members of my potential team, and get a tour of the facilities.

I had no clue as to what to expect.

One part of me expected professionally-dressed, articulate individuals and a somewhat conservative interior.

But what if I walked into the office and instead found experienced people dressed in flip-flops and shorts, throwing toy footballs across their desks, and talking to their friends loudly on their cellphones?

I imagined walking into the CEO’s office and a man or woman in a Hawaiian shirt slapping me on the back and saying, “Whaddya want?”

The whole environment was a black box to me.

I felt uncomfortable and had no idea how to interact with everyone when I arrived.

All I knew was academia.

If the situation were turned, and someone walked into an academic lab expecting to see everyone dressed in three-piece suits, with the principal investigator sitting behind a large polished oak desk with a cedar and brass grandfather clock, I would have laughed.

Now the tables had turned.

I never took the time to research the company and reach out to employees for informational interviews.

When you enter an interview, you have to convey the persona of someone that not only has the technical skills, but fits with the culture of the company.

Was I someone that they could picture doing business with? Chatting with over lunch break?

Probably not.

I was nervous, under-dressed and only regurgitated rehearsed interview answers on command.

I may have been the right person for the job on paper, but I did not fit in with their corporate environment.

Next time around, I took the opportunity to understand the culture.

Not only did I want the job, but I wanted to find a company where I could thrive.

Why Understanding Company Culture Is Just As Important As Technical Know-How

If you do not understand the values of the company, no matter your experience or technical expertise, you will be passed over for the job.

Companies make a significant investment to create a workplace culture to maintain staff and be successful.

There is a spectrum of different cultures that exist in business.

A large pharmaceutical company has to have a more conservative culture because people are entrusting them with their health (and money).

Meanwhile, a biotechnology company in a Boston or San Diego startup cluster is more likely to have people in flip-flops and shorts than formal suits.

But why?

First, startups are often in a much more creative phase of the business cycle than that of a large, publicly-traded pharmaceutical company.

Second, startups are smaller and more intimate, which allows for a more casual atmosphere.

However, a company’s culture is not defined just by its appearance.

It’s also comprised of the set of beliefs, values, and attitudes held by the company.

To return to the example of Silicon Valley, it is often said that startups work by the mantra, “Fall often, fall forward.”

That is, they encourage their employees to try things and fail, so that at least they’re trying to innovate and learning from the iterations as they go.

The failing-is-good culture wouldn’t work at large, publicly-traded pharmaceutical companies, or a bank, or a medical doctor’s practice, and so on.

Do not underestimate company culture as just another so-called ‘soft element’ of business.

Numerous academic studies reported in Management Decision show that when two companies merge, the merger most often does NOT work because of a culture difference between the two companies.

The biggest reason that company culture has become such a popular field is because companies can only attract the best talent if they have the right culture.

As a PhD, you are the best talent.

To succeed, we need to find a company that suits our work ethos and our future goals.

The last thing you want is to be stuck in another dead-end job where you are searching for an escape plan.

why is organizational culture important | Cheeky Scientist | what is corporate culture

5 Components Of An Effective Company Culture Every PhD Should Know

Few people will want to work for a company which is considered repressive, or to use extreme examples, sexist or racist.

Companies who fail to change their culture to the changing demands of up-and-coming business talent, will indeed fail.

Younger workers continue to leave companies with outdated cultures to instead work for more tech-savvy and youthful companies who support a healthy work-life balance.

Likewise, consider the number of PhDs and other academic professionals who continue to transition out of academia into industry because of academia’s outdated and financially repressive culture.

If PhDs want to start a new chapter out of academia, they must find a company whose culture will mirror their own working style and beliefs.

Consider these 5 components of an effective company culture before you start your job search…

1. Clarity of purpose.

This one is deceptively simple.

It’s not enough for a company to merely prescribe a purpose for its employees; they also have to buy into it.

They have to feel that what they do matters, and has a measurable impact on the success of the company.

Sometimes, the initial purpose may become cloudy when companies focus on short-term goals like profitability or cost-cutting.

It is vital for the leadership team to continually revisit its overall purpose and remind themselves, and their employees, what they are working towards.

Business is constantly in a state of change. 

There is unpredictability which demands adaptation, and change is key to keep its purpose in check and at the heart of every big decision.

It allows the company to navigate through difficult times.

2. Employee engagement.

Engagement is “part two” of purpose.

Employee engagement is how well you’ve prepared your employees to fulfill their purpose.

Are there distractions or inefficiencies throughout the company?

If your employees don’t feel empowered to fulfill their roles to the best of their ability, you have an engagement problem.

In a 2013 survey by the Harvard Business Review, 71% of respondents ranked employee engagement as very important to achieving overall organizational success.

A highly engaged workforce can increase innovation, productivity and performance.

It also reduces costs related to hiring and retention.

If a company wants to attract the best talent, they also have to show they have a low turnover rate and make employees feel they are being recognized for their efforts.

3. An environment of trust.

Trust is absolutely critical in the workplace.

We’ve all had jobs where we thought twice before leaving personal effects unattended in the break room, or where we couldn’t necessarily count on co-workers to pull their weight.

A project does not succeed because of the efforts of one person alone.

You need others’ support and assistance.

Leaders must rely on those who share their vision and goals.

Sure, you can hire people who seem trustworthy, but making trust a company value — with zero exceptions — falls squarely on the business owner.

Trust is built gradually and through the behaviors of top-level management, which then trickle down to all levels of the business.

Trust can come in many varieties.

Consider these examples: following through on one’s word, keeping promises, acting in line with company values, making decisions based on what’s good for the organization, supporting employees, having faith in colleagues and keeping confidential information confidential.

4. Transparency in communication.

Companies cannot be afraid to over-communicate.

Communication also builds trust (see #3 above).

Building a sustainable company culture requires clear, transparent, honest communication.

It requires leaders to consistently send a clear message, as well as constantly reinforcing the value in that message.

The company’s purpose should be transparent, as should each employee’s role and the value the company will deliver to the clients.

Nowadays, people prefer to do business in a culture that is characterized by transparency, and privacy is equated with being devious and potentially hiding vital information.

As people become more transparent, their relationships become stronger. 

The same is true for business.

Transparency comes in many forms.

Business leaders can be personally transparent through social media and blogs.

The business itself can be transparent about its mistakes and successes.

It can also be transparent about change.

If there is a shift in the business model, a recruitment freeze, or budget cuts, does the business explain how this will affect its employees, the leadership and the products it produces?

5. Employee referrals.

Building a great culture starts with the people you decide to have on your respective teams.

Investing time and effort to ensure the proper person is selected is fundamental to the success of the team and will pay off huge in the long run.

If you’re a hiring manager, this means hiring very carefully.

If you’re a job candidate, this means you must understand company culture extremely well so you can demonstrate your fit with the company’s culture.

If you’re a current employee, it means only referring people who you know will fit with your company’s culture.

An ideal candidate can become a disaster if this is not the case.

Relying on employees to recruit people is not only cost-effective, but is reassuring to the rest of the team that the new hires will easily assimilate.

It also empowers the employees, giving them a sense of ownership and making them feel more engaged, which feeds back into the building of the culture itself.

One of the biggest mistakes PhDs make when transitioning into industry is going into interviews or accepting job offers without doing their research. Many of these PhDs transition into industry without knowing anything about their new company’s structure or culture. As a result, they look naive and unprepared on the job. Beyond that, they can become trapped in an entry-level position. Companies want to hire PhDs that they would feel comfortable working with. If you do not understand the values of the company, no matter your experience or technical expertise, you will be passed over for the job.

To learn more about transitioning into industry, including instant access to our exclusive training videos, case studies, industry insider documents, transition plan, and private online network, get on the wait list for the Cheeky Scientist Association.

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Isaiah Hankel Ph.D.

Isaiah Hankel Ph.D.

Isaiah is a Ph.D. in Anatomy & Cell Biology and internationally recognized Fortune 500 consultant. He is an expert in the biotechnology industry and specializes in helping people transition into cutting-edge career tracks.

Isaiah believes that if you feel stuck somewhere in your life right now, you should make a change. Don’t sit still and wait for the world to tell you what to do. Start a new project. Build your own business. Take action. Experimentation is the best teacher.
Isaiah Hankel Ph.D.
  • Winona Petit

    I wish I’d had this article available when I first started out. At that time, even though we understood the concept of corporate culture, it wasn’t the first thing on our radar. The going belief was that if you were halfway intelligent (duh – we were PhD’s so we had nothing to worry about, right? WRONG!) and not a person with ape-like manners, we would just naturally fit in wherever we landed! Boy, did I misinterpret the corporate culture on my first few jobs, and did that cause me a lot of grief. I hope the new PhD’s just entering the workforce heed your information and make good use of it. 🙂

    • Rahul Pandey

      I had a very uncomfortable experience in top 10 MNC pharma company. The cultural shift was phenomenonal. I was upset with the salary part as I had poor negotiation skill and fear of losing the coveted job. The hr was very terse and abrupt leaving no room for negotiation. Within 15 days I left the company because I was feeling unworthy of CTC offered and rigid hr behaviour. Many of the colleagues appreciated my bold decision and said they wished the same but could do it because of family reasons. Salary appreciation, career growth and international exposure was at its lowest since company started hiring in India. They were on budget and cost cutting with each division monitored HR business partner. Very hierichal and stuffing atmosphere though colleagues and spline managers were very supportive. Had very bad experience when I communicated my decision to leave company. HR bp was it’s lowest in extracting money out of my pocket and it only ended when I threatened them of contract violation. I would say meeky selling people with no ethics exploiting technical talent. I really wanted to work but realized I would not thrive much in company.

      • Winona Petit

        Wow, @Rahul Pandey, that sounds terrible. It sounds like you really made the right decision to leave, and it reminds me of a job I quit and everybody told me the same thing. They wanted to leave, too, but they had kids or some other obligation and didn’t dare. I hope you’ve become a better negotiator and communicator. It took me a long time, but I eventually learned it. It’s an interesting play between being honest and authentic vs. being careful not to put all your cards on the table. But it’s a skill and can be learned. I appreciate your honesty here. 🙂

  • Matthew Smithson PhD

    I can identify with not fitting in right away. I had a really awkward first position precisely for the reasons you’re discussing. I had no idea how I could fit in or be appropriate to their culture. It gets easier over time, but it’s good to have a cheat sheet like this to help you get acclimated if you feel like a fish out of water. The best advice is to get those informational interviews. I didn’t do it, and I can tell you it was not only harder to find a position, but harder to fit in to the first one I got.

  • Julian Holst

    I think the issue most important to me is transparency. If a company is going to make a huge downsizing, or build another building, or do a mass hiring, or change direction, I do think they should let the employees in on it. I know that some companies make a huge effort to let the employees know what’s going on, and if there is a problem, they will even take the leap of faith to let the employees know what’s happening. A lot of times, the employees can help think of solutions. Sometimes, everyone will take a small cut instead of firing people when money is tight. Other times, employees know where the fat needs to be cut and will help the managers see solutions. But most companies are still stuck in the strictly top-down model based on military-style commands.

  • Madeline Rosemary

    This is a tricky subject, because company culture can be so varied depending on where you work in the company. Division managers can have very different styles, expectations, and beliefs about the company’s values, and that can cause friction between employees. What I find works best for me is to be friendly and professional, and not go too casual even if other people are doing it. If things get out of hand and people go too far, I’m always on the higher ground.

    • soho

      That’s a good idea, but at the same time they should still be able to see your human side, otherwise they might think you’re stuck-up, hiding something, have no personality, or you’re robotic. So, along with adjusting your tone depending on who you’re speaking with of course, I don’t think it’s a bad thing to show a sense of humour etc when meeting the team for the first time e.g. at interviews, tours etc. They might feel they can relate to you better then, and feel you are a good fit for the team, rather than if you keep holding back. Plus, you might be more memorable by showing you have character.

      • Madeline Rosemary

        That is a really great point, and I definitely maintain positive vibes and everything. I guess I’m just talking about the rare instance where everybody’s badmouthing the boss (or anyone else), etc. I think some bosses kind of elicit an atmosphere that isn’t very pretty, and some bosses create a workplace where everyone’s friendly, trust each other, etc. So, you’re completely right, of course. I didn’t make it clear how rare it is that I have to change the subject or simply not comment. LOL

        • Madeline Rosemary

          We’ve gotta have some character and humor after all! 🙂

          • soho

            Oh gosh yes, if you see a team that badmouths the boss when you first meet them, or get to know them, get out of there if you can! I.e. if you haven’t committed and accepted their offer etc. Not a good sign! Either the boss truly is a bad manager or isn’t trustworthy, or the team is two-faced and spiteful, and who knows they may badmouth you one day! Either way, better to avoid such negative energies, it seriously isn’t worth it! It’s a shame there’s only so much you can tell when you first meet the team, since everyone puts on a polite face anyway to avoid scaring you away!

  • Marvin D’Esprit

    Your story sounds like one of those terrible dreams where you go into the office and look down and realize you don’t have any clothes on. That feeling of not fitting in is so real and feels so awful. I remember that I was in an interview once with a panel and they asked me about my volunteer work with youth, and I explained that I was teaching a class about how to interview. As I described it, I looked around the table and realized that I was, at that exact moment, completely flunking the interview and that everyone on the panel was rolling their eyes like they were about to go to sleep or maybe dying to get out of there. I was so shocked that I almost said, “I’m flunking this interview right now, aren’t I?” Maybe I should have.

  • Carlie Stevenson, PhD

    For the first time, I can see very clearly why they work so hard to get a candidate that will fit in to the corporate environment. It’s not only important to get people with the right skills, knowledge, and talent, but just as important to get someone who will smoothly assimilate with the company values and mores. Very good explanation.

  • Kathy Azalea

    As someone who’s facing the reality of looking for a position after defending, I appreciate the article for spelling out what a good company culture looks like. This is something I can include in my research for getting a position. I don’t want to assume that because I’m inexperienced, I can’t get into a really good company. I want to shoot for something that’s a good fit for me and a good one for them, too.

  • Maggie Sue Smith

    Some of the top businesses in the world are completely transparent. I can see why companies don’t opt for that kind of thing for quite a few reasons, but I was reading that one of the top-rated companies to work for in the world is a publishing company in Malaysia that attracts talent from all over the world because they’re very transparent and let the employees weigh in on matters that most companies don’t. But, like I said, a biopharmaceutical company has to protect certain formulas, etc., because there’s so much competition. A healthy balance is in order.