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Goldman Sachs, Bain & Co. or Google? Take the test

When you can't decide

If you're an academic high achiever with aspirations to work for a world-leading firm of the sort that hires exceptional people, you've probably considered the tripartite of finance careers, consulting careers, or tech careers. If so, you've probably also weighed-up the top names in each sector - the Goldmans, the Bains, the Googles.

Your decision shouldn't just be about the tasks involved, however. Before embarking upon a career, you also need to consider the culture. And the culture across tech, consulting and finance is very different.

Academics at Claremont Graduate University and the Questrom School of Business at Boston University in the U.S. have concocted a new way of quantifying cultural differences and working out where you fit. Titled 'Career Culture,' and defined as, "beliefs and practices that prescribe what is valued for career success in the organization", they say you can use it to answer questions like, "‘‘How do I know if the people here are really ‘my kind’ of people?’’, ‘‘How can I tell if the firm’s values and expectations of employees, especially junior employees, are compatible with the way I want to be at work?’’, ‘‘How can I develop and thrive here?"

The academics split cultures into four categories: prestige cultures, apprenticeship cultures, protean cultures, and merit cultures. They suggest that working out where you want to work is as much about working out which of these cultures you want to work within as whether you want to do the job itself.

Do you fit with the 'prestige culture' at a Goldman Sachs or a Morgan Stanley?

Investment banks like Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley have prestige cultures, say the researchers. They are very concerned with reputation and they hire people from elite institutions who will enhance their reputations. They're big on status symbols and they have prominent office buildings in prestigious locations. They pride themselves on bring "career springboards" that will launch employees' careers for the future (even if they don't stay with the firm). Their emphasis is on "extrinsic values" - they hire the "very best people" and they offer tangible rewards like, "visible achievement, distinction, external recognition, and status."

You'll fit with a prestige culture if you agree with the following statements:

  • You want to work for a firm that recognizes your excellent academic achievements to date.
  • You want to work somewhere that only hires the very best.
  • You want to work for a firm that will assimilate you into its existing structure and make you a member of its exclusive club.
  • You want to work somewhere that offers high status and high pay.

Do you fit with the 'apprenticeship culture' at Bain & Co.?

If leading investment banks have a prestige culture, the academics say leading consulting firms - like Bain & Co, - have 'apprenticeship cultures.'

Here, they say the emphasis is more upon "intrinsic values." You'll be valued and rewarded if you demonstrate behaviours that are, "self-directed and guided by personal values."

You'll fit with an apprenticeship culture if you agree with the following statements:

  • You want to be carefully mentored and nurtured along the organizational career path.
  • You want to be assimilated into the firm and taught its values.
  • You're a "loyal corporate citizen" who likes the intrinsic reward that comes from, 'the pride of accomplishing a challenging task, the knowledge that one has helped another person, and the self-esteem arising from achieving a level of distinction in your job or career.'

Do you fit with the 'protean culture' at Google?

At Google and tech firms, the researchers suggest the culture is different again. Here, it's all about autonomy. It's about, 'following your passion.' You don't have to follow a prescribed career path and you get a high degree of freedom. It's not about conformity and assimilation, although you are expected to show "colleagueship and community." Like apprenticeship cultures, protean cultures are for people who like intrinsic values: taking pride in your work, helping people, distinguishing yourself in your career.

A protean culture won't work for you if you like a hierarchical and structured approach to your career. It will work for you if you agree with the following statements:

  • You want to be captain of your own ship.
  • You want to follow your passion.
  • You want to work for a manager who has the freedom to design a career path that's right for you.
  • You want to work for an organization that pays a lot of attention to your own strengths and interests.
  • ‘You see yourself as a ‘pathfinder’’ who values intrinsic rewards and prefers to differentiate yourself from others than to go for big external rewards.

Do you fit with the 'merit culture' at blue chip corporates?

And if none of the above sound like you? There's always the 'merit culture' which the academics say is in evidence at big corporations like P&G and GE. Here, they say it's all about proving yourself and advancing based upon effort and achievement. This might sound a bit like banking, but the academics argue it's not the same. In a prestige culture, you're hired based upon existing achievements (and are expected to perpetuate them), in a merit culture they say you're expected to prove yourself on the job.

You'll apparently fit with a merit culture if....

  • You like a 'sink or swim' approach to life and work.
  • You like a strong emphasis upon performance.
  • You like extrinsic rewards like high pay and big job titles.
  • You like feeling better than the rest.

A bit of each?

By this stage you (like us) might be thinking that this corporate culture thing is overdone. Google has big prestigious offices. Investment banks like to hire the best of the best, but they also like to pride themselves on being meritocracies, to pay for performance, to coach people and to instil corporate values. Surely, therefore, they're a bit of each.

The academics have foreseen this criticism. "You probably won’t find pure types anywhere," they admit - acknowledging that McKinsey & Co, is a little bit prestige and a little bit apprentice. Ultimately, they suggest you use their cultural groupings as a framework rather than a definitive categorization ('there is value in pushing yourself to discern the primary type [that characterizes the organization you want to join].")

For example, while banks might be a bit merit and a bit apprenticeship and a lot prestige, they're not really very protean (or at least haven't been historically). If you join a bank with the intention of following your career wherever your passion takes you, you might therefore be disappointed. Google, not so much.

AUTHORSarah Butcher Global Editor

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