Ask the right questions: Company Culture

As you have probably noticed, I haven’t been great at writing new pieces for you lately. Sure, I can blame some of it on getting a new dog, having a house with a massive garden that needs a ton of attention, or working on creating user-friendly space experimentation interfaces (I never thought I’d write that sentence). But the truth is that it’s becoming increasingly difficult to know what topics to cover. So yesterday I asked for topics in my Slack channel that the group would like me to talk about with the promise that I would pick at least one. The selected topic turned out to be something we had been discussing just a few days earlier, but also one that I’ve been reflecting on this year.

For someone that works quite a bit as a consultant, it’s natural to transition in and out of organizations frequently. Even though I’m not often full-time, I spend months in these environments, so if there is a bad culture it definitely can take a toll on my well-being.

It’s like… dating?

You see, it’s tough to evaluate ahead of actually working there so it’s a little like dating. Your interview is basically like a Tinder profile. Everyone wants to look their best and come across as healthy, humorous, and successful, but as time goes by you’ll notice there are cracks in the facade. After all, we are all humans and, at the end of the day, we have flaws.

Next, you need to find a match that is equally interested in you as you are in them and that can take some work. On a coaching call the other day, a senior designer asked me for advice on what to ask a company in the hiring process. As I’ve been on both sides of that table on many occasions, it was a question that really interested me. I remember always thinking how weird it was when an interviewee didn’t have any questions and yet when I was being interviewed I hardly ever knew what to ask either!

First of all, I think it’s important to acknowledge that there are two types of approaches - and subsequently - two types of interviews.

  1. Work-focused - I think this was way more common at the beginning of my career. It was purely focused on past work experience and the entire interview was based on you presenting that work. This type still exists though and you can usually tell by the language used before the interview. (i.e. ”Walk us through some of your background.”)

  2. Vibe-focused - In my opinion, any interview - regardless of what side of the table you’re at - is primarily a vibe-check. Just like working on ‘space experimentations’, it’s really difficult to explain what this means in reality. It’s a lot like when you’re on a first date you can “sense” it. When you know, you know, right? Me, I like to ask myself if I’m excited by the possibility of working with this company and spending time talking to these people daily. My gut is my best guidance here.

Useful questions

There are times that even your gut fails you though, so to try to filter out red flags, there are a couple of questions I ask. I think these questions are especially useful when interviewing for a startup because they tend to have fewer processes in place.

I like to ask the founder where they see the company in a year and in five years. What I’ve learned is that it’s not necessarily the answer itself that offers guidance here, but what kind of answer they give. Ideally, they tell you about what problems they are solving in one year vs five years, however, I’ve experienced founders that instead will focus on how many people they’ll have on staff in five years. This tells me they are more focused on growth than solving problems and that is not typically an effective measure of success.

As I mentioned earlier, I think the questions you ask should tell you if this is the right environment for you. Me, I like Slack. I don’t like daily standups or recurring meetings as they tend to be meeting for the sake of meeting. I prefer asynchronous feedback as it allows me to process the feedback when the time is appropriate. Naturally, you can’t get everything as you wish, but asking how they work is a question I ask any potential employer/client.

Red flags

There are red flags that you will want to pay attention to as a company that handles an interview poorly probably doesn’t have a great culture. This is like showing up drunk to your first date. Not a great impression. As an example, I’m mindful of my time and how I spend it. If a client joins meetings late and allows them to run over without asking, it demonstrates that they don’t value my time. Similarly, if they schedule three different calls where we discuss the same thing, it’s also a flag that they aren’t being respectful.

So answering the question of how to evaluate a company culture is tricky. What it really boils down to is that you need to define what great company culture is for you. Personally, I like having a relationship with the people I work with that isn’t solely tied to the work. I enjoyed visiting Allen with whom I worked with at Product when I was in Los Angeles earlier this year. Jessi, Nicole, and I talk on a daily basis even though we’re not currently working together. I am a strong believer in the notion that you should be able to bring your whole self to work. I mean, we spend a majority of our time at work, so that is what I look for in company culture. What are you looking for? What’s important to you?

Update: If this interests you, then do check out this post by Tanner Christensen and his new venture!

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