Ben (name changed to protect the innocent) spent 20 years in the US Navy before moving into civilian work. At this point, he told me, he had seen “a lot of cultures.” “Culture in the Navy – maybe most places – is driven by those in command. There are a lot of different types of commanders in the Navy.” After living in this strict universe, Ben was ready for a more relaxed environment. He didn’t really care where he worked; his wife wanted to end up in North Carolina, so he took a job with a tech company in Raleigh.
“I now realize that the warning signs were there immediately,” Ben told me. There was no onboarding process or introduction. Ben was given a desk and thrown into the fray. On his second day, he had his first encounter with The CTO.
The CTO had previously been The Founder. We’ve discussed how leaders are a huge part of the cultural vibe previously, and this was no different. The Founder had a short stint as The CEO, but when deemed unfit for that job he was “shoehorned” into the role of CTO. He started setting the foundation for the culture when he founded the company, and continued to singularly define it as The CTO.
Ben’s first experience with The CTO was illustrative. Ben was in a coworker’s cubicle, talking about something work-related. The CTO, who he had never met before, interrupted and attempted to push past him to speak to Ben’s coworker. Literally push. Not ask him to move, but push. The man was an angry, self-important steamroller.
The culture that The CTO built was one of self-preservation. He wanted things done his way, and if they weren’t he would throw a fit. Ben remembers him once blowing up and saying “fine, I’ll just sit here and do nothing, I’ll do whatever you want.” Like an angsty teenager.
It would be one thing if this just meant people didn’t like him and avoided him. But again, it built a culture of people trying to protect themselves from him. That meant not innovating; he hated any ideas that didn’t come from him. That meant not acting on customer feedback; he didn’t think it was as important as his ideas. That meant not doing MUCH; better to do nothing if it meant he wouldn’t spot you.
It’s easy to say “well, this isn’t culture, this is just a bad apple.” But it was a culture. Before Ben took over leading the Field Services team, most of what they did was commiserate. All day. They were good people and saw solutions to many of the problems in the company, but they were culturally trained to do nothing. It was “like a florist being forced to watch their greenhouse burned to the ground while they hold a fire extinguisher in their hand.”
Ben, a military man if nothing else, didn’t think his people deserved that. He defended his team, getting into fight after fight with The CTO. He begged the CEO – a genuinely good person – to get The CTO in line or out of the company. It wasn’t going to happen…neither the board nor the CEO could do it due to the amount of stock The CTO owned.
In the end, Ben managed to insulate his team. He took a beating while they actually tried to help customers and fix the things that needed to be fixed. He did something rather remarkable: he built a new culture within the existing one. Customers loved his team, and he suspects Field Services was often the only thing keeping some of these customers from leaving or – as many threatened – from suing the company.
But one man can only take a beating for so long, and Ben finally moved on. He ended up at Target…one of the primary reasons being that “culture was a huge part of the interview process.” Ben beats himself up for not realizing what he was getting into, or making more of a difference, or getting out sooner…but from an outsider’s perspective you can see that he did as well as one could in that situation.
The company, Ben says, is fairly close to bankruptcy. He knows that most of the employees (many of them his friends) are looking for new jobs. And without him leading the Field Services team, he expects many of the hanging-by-a-thread customers will leave. “It’s a shame,” Ben says. “It’s a great technology and could have been a successful company. But not with that culture.”