Wednesday, November 1, 2017

Culture, the Gophers and the Real World

Culture: the attitudes and behavior characteristic of a particular social group.

I work for a large company in the Twin Cities. One of the largest in fact. I've been there for about 15 years. Though the industry would typically be seen as old-fashioned and stodgy, I work in a part of the company where I can dress and act pretty much however I want. In the summer, I'll wear t-shirts; in the winter I'll wear baggy jeans and an old flannel which, when combined with a scraggly beard, probably gives people the impression I'm homeless. With the exception of my teammates, the rest of the floor is required to conform to the corporate uniform of business casual. Suckers.

I am not the first person to whom a new employee would be sent for a primer on the company culture. Partly this is by design: I work in research and development and, to some extent, our mandate is to respectfully challenge the status quo; we're supposed to be weirdos (a hat I wear quite well, thank you). Also, I'm a bit of a non-conformist. A rugged individualist, if you will, minus the slightest hint of characteristics that could be deemed "rugged." I see the culture of the company, and appreciate its value to some degree; but I ain't wearing a lapel pin and I sure as Hell ain't committing to memory some value statement thrown together by some human-centered design shop in Palo Alto.

In this, though, I must admit that I am in the minority. Not just at my present employer, but everywhere I've worked. I'm obviously making broad generalizations here, but most people seem to look at their career as a way to achieve some sort of life purpose. They spend most of their waking hours at their jobs and see their time there as a way to make a difference in the world. 

In traditional jobs, say manufacturing or construction, it was pretty easy to look back at the end of a day or a year and see what you did. There was kinship with your co-workers as you collectively worked toward producing some tangible output. There was a physical representation of what you'd done. You and the world could see it.

As we've transitioned to a more service- and skills-oriented economy, the 'proof' of your labor over a period of time was no longer visible. Sitting on conference calls, seeing dozens of patients or flipping burgers was still work; but you had no collectively-assembled artifacts to reflect your time and effort. Thus was born the corporate culture.

There's been a lot written about how corporate cultures affect the performance of employees, so I'll spare you the boring details (you're already, like, a thousand words in and I haven't even mentioned football, you poor saps - talk about bait and switch); but as Millennials have entered the workforce, the notion of a strong, meaningful corporate culture has become all the more prominent. We see things like "value-based," "purpose-driven" and "powering potential." Work today, for most people isn't just a means to an end, a happy retirement full of travel and excitement; work is an end in itself, a way to achieve self actualization and find purpose.

That lengthy screed is more or less to say that culture is important. Depending on a company's message, they will attract a certain type of talent, a certain type of individual. Target hires radically different employees than Cargill, which hires radically different employees than Medtronic - likely because the respective corporate culture resonated with the prospective employee and the company believed the person would be a good fit for the culture. A bad match on either end will likely lead to poor performance, a bad attitude and a short tenure. Not necessarily because the company or the employee did anything wrong; rather, it's a matter of fit. There is no good or bad, generally speaking: only different.

So, finally, let's talk about the Gophs! A ton has been made about the cultural revolution Fleck brought with him. Many saw it as a great thing, given trainghazi and some of the on-field discipline issues that arose last season. Many others saw his framing of the culture change as an indictment on the previous staff. Being the milquetoast blogger that you've all come to know and love, I'll say that it, at its core, was neither.

Kill et al. wanted a certain type of player: a hard-nosed lunch pailer that could handle psychological adversity. These are good things to look for in a football player. To a large extent, I think the Kill regime believed these were traits inherent to the person: they largely were who they were before they got to campus and the coaches would work with them to achieve success on the football field. It was a culture of tenacity and hard work that necessitated the recruitment of a certain type of player to be successful.

I think Fleck's culture is different in that it's more, uh, aspirational, I guess. Not that Kill didn't want to achieve success here; instead it's more about taking something, a recruit in this case, that might have some imperfections and turning him into something more. Fleck's culture doesn't require a wholesale re-write from the Kill regime. It's a nuanced shift that requires a player to be more capable of believing in abstract concepts. Yes, it's about development on the football field and in the classroom; but it's also oriented around the metaphor of overcoming the challenges of life in general. Metaphor wasn't exactly a hallmark of the Kill and Claeys tenure.

I'll wrap up by saying in a lot of cases they may have gone after the same players. Good football players are good football players, after all. But like Target, Cargill and Medtronic, the respective Gopher coaches each looked for prospects that fit the belief systems instilled by their respective cultures. Neither is categorically good or bad. They're just different and, in some cases, require different sorts of people to be successful.

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