Learning how to work the corporate culture

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Whether it’s a global bank or small private equity firm, every place has its own distinct corporate culture. It’s hard to describe in words, but everyone can immediately tell you about the feel of their workplace. It’s not uncommon for people to say that a trading environment demands aggressive personalities and a thick skin. If you’re working at a big bank, consensus builders and team-oriented personalities are valued.

Navigating the Course

Whatever the culture, it’s important to understand how you can best fit into it. Kevin Parker, managing director of the financial services and insurance practice at Cook Associates, an executive search firm, says, “Executives and professionals who are successful in all sized companies understand how to navigate the corporate culture to both benefit the company and their careers.” Smart executives understand the norms and values of the culture, and they quickly figure out how to influence it, he adds.

Newbie Advice

For recent grads, getting a handle on corporate culture can sometimes be very difficult, given the lack of prior work experience. Kathy Kehoe, managing director at CMF Associates, a consulting and talent management firm, admits that B-school grads who’ve landed a spot in a top bank or bulge bracket training program may get a false impression. “Initially, you’ll have lots of structure built into a training program,” she says. “You’ll have the benefit of senior management regularly talking to your group or working with you as a mentor.” But the case will soon change once you finish training.

Look for Help

If you’re inexperienced at reading the signs, Kehoe recommends listening closely and observing the spoken and unspoken things going on at work. It pays to speak with mentors outside of your firm, but those within your field or expertise, so you can get a handle on the usual and not so usual dynamics at work. If you’re lucky enough to get advice from someone on the job, make sure they are truly in the loop.

Some Caveats

Don’t expect the moon and stars from your informal mentor at work. There’s a difference between getting advice and monopolizing someone’s time, says Kehoe. “Try not to be annoying. Don’t e-mail every day. You might want to reach out periodically and suggest lunch, at their convenience, of course.” But, ultimately, it pays to watch how others interact, she notes. “How do people talk to each other and how is information presented? How are different views expressed and in what forum?”

Produce, Produce, Produce

But being an astute judge of the corporate culture isn’t going to help you if you aren’t producing at work. Kehoe says, “It’s called work for a reason.” Stick up for yourself on the job, and make sure your accomplishments are clear. But don’t brag. Kehoe also reminds to avoid the blame game and gossiping. No matter the situation, most bosses don’t like complainers. “Stay away from the frat atmosphere, even though your workplace may have an aspect of one,” she says. It usually distracts from the job at hand. And, if you’re hard at work, that doesn’t give you time for developing personal relationships at work. “They’re never appropriate in the workplace,” she adds.

The Seen and Unseen

Many times, working the corporate culture to your benefit requires a look at not only the obvious things going on at work, but it demands attention to the things that bubble under the surface, says George Bradt, managing director of the executive on-boarding consulting firm PrimeGenesis. While you can certainly look at observable behaviors, it’s also smart to take a look at the informal and hidden relationships at work. “Get a feel for the place,” says Bradt. “The values written on the wall are not necessarily the true values of the firm.” If you’re looking for long-term success on the job, Bradt advises that it’s best to get a read, evolve and be a part of the culture.

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