Defining Culture

I was talking to a friend of mine last night, who is in an undergraduate business program and will be entering recruiting season in the fall. Our discussion got around to “culture” within various firms and what it actually meant, and it got me thinking that maybe I should do a post on what “culture” means to me.

I’ve gone through recruiting processes for accounting and consulting firms – both, fields in which finding which firm is the “right fit” for you is emphasized constantly. In both instances, I neared the recruiting process with a strong preference for 2 firms; in both instances, I only received offers from one of the 2 firms, allowing me to avoid making a choice. My preference was based on a variety of factors, and ultimately reflected which firms I was most comfortable with.

What is Culture?

I like to think of culture as being analogous to climate: just as you cannot arrive at a conclusion that Toronto’s climate is rainy because you happened to spend one rainy day there, you cannot draw conclusions regarding culture from a small sample size of interactions. Culture, to me, is a pervasive set of attitudes and personalities among individuals of a certain group. Whether this group is defined by geography, race, employer, or educational institution, its culture is generally driven by common experiences and philosophies instilled in them.

In the case of employers and business schools, culture can be terribly subtle and difficult to isolate/identify. For instance, the general profile of an MBA student at a top b-school is someone who is incredibly motivated, determined, dedicated, intelligent and ambitious. Each candidate might demonstrate these characteristics in different proportions, but in general, most candidates possess some measure of each characteristic. So how then, can one distinguish between culture at b-schools if their students are so similar?

How to Identify Culture

As with anything, there are multiple approaches to identifying the culture of a group of individuals. One can simply amass as many interactions as possible with members of that group until it is possible to sufficiently distinguish what separates them from another similar group (even if one cannot adequately define what this quality is). Conversely, one can be more systematic in the approach, and attempt to track their interactions and compare the results.

The best way to track the latter is to list out the characteristics that influence “culture” and then to rate each interaction based on these categories. Once enough data is collected, a conclusion on the culture of the group relative to others can be reached.

For business schools, categories may include:

  • strength of alumni network (success as leaders in the future, breadth of industries etc.)
  • area of focus
  • teaching methodologies
  • class size
  • diversity
  • opportunities available upon graduation (various ways to measure)
This, of course, is only a rough list to give you an idea of what to think about. But it’s easy to see how after attending many recruiting sessions or reading articles, one could divine the strengths and weaknesses of a b-school, and consequently determine a clearer picture of its culture. But none of this is relevant unless you can relate culture back to yourself.

What is Your Culture?

The easiest way to find a good fit is just by the way interactions feel. We’ve all been to networking sessions and conferences where conversations get awkward. But if you find yourself consistently in awkward conversations with representatives from one institution or firm, regardless of where you meet them, then perhaps its indicative of a bad fit. A word of caution here that it could just be that your networking skills need a bit of polishing, or that the sample size of people you’re speaking with is small. Conversely, if you always have interesting conversations with people from a certain employer or firm, then it is likely to be a good fit for you.

Another key part of finding your fit, whether with an employer or with a b-school, is first identifying what you are looking for. This is often the part most candidates do not spend enough time thinking about. To really know where you would be able to make the most of your time, you have to know what your skills and preferences are. For instance, I identified that I tend to be goal-oriented, ambitious and opinionated. I tend to gravitate towards people with similar personalities who have strong leadership and communication skills and those who have a good sense of humour. So for me, a good fit would mean that in general, people from that organization are accomplished, have the demeanor of a leader, and are easygoing enough to have a light conversation at networking events. Once I recognized this tendency, I was able to clearly understand why I was more comfortable with certain firms, and finding my fit became a lot easier.

Last Words

If all else fails, simply use the airport test. Look at a list of individuals who attended the school – if you’ve networked well, you should know quite a few recent grads/current students – and ask yourself if you would mind spending a day with them at the airport (as in your flight is delayed and you’re stuck there, not as in you take a fun excursion to the airport). Employers do this all the time when selecting candidates; it works both ways. If you respect them, look up to them, find them easy to talk to, and generally enjoy their company, chances are you would not mind at all. If the majority of the reps of the school/firm pass this test, you have yourself a fit!

Whether you’re going into recruiting season, or applying to b-school, I hope this provides a little bit of insight into how you can cut through the constant talk about “culture” and find the right fit for you.

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3 responses to “Defining Culture

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