A Tale of Two Cultures

Jen Luna’s life went from miserable to happy almost overnight.

She didn’t lose weight, get married, or have a baby.

She quit her job, (or more to the point, she quit a bad boss.)

Her story is an eye-opening one of two corporate cultures that illustrates why Gallup researchers found  two out of three employees in every workplace across America are disengaged at work. Jen’s story is presented in her own words as a first hand account of her experience in two vastly different corporate cultures.

Bad Boss + Bad Culture=Lost Opportunities


“I worked over 3 years at a promising B2B company on the east coast. They had an innovative concept that was a real unmet opportunity in the marketplace.

When I was first hired, I was the definition of a go-getter. I was constantly thinking of new ideas and ways to improve and streamline processes in my department. After a couple of years, some of those innovative and ballsy decisions were biting me in the butt. What earned approval and accolades from my superiors, turned into topics for them to disagree about without my knowledge and behind closed curtains.

When I realized this was happening, it discouraged me to take further risks or present ideas to improve things. So I stopped.  I became perfectly fine maintaining the status quo.  Meanwhile, turnover in the company was through the roof. The person I shared an office with left the company in early 2010 after working there for 11 years.  I later found out it was for the same reasons I was experiencing.

This situation damaged my personal confidence. I felt insecure about my job all the time, like I was always walking on eggshells. There was a blanket over issues and problems; nothing was “out in the open.” There were constant surprises. Decisions (employee terminations) came out of left field with no forewarning.

The current CEO bought the business from the founder 12 years ago. He placed his trust in someone on the team (let’s say Joe) who was divisive and fostered mistrust throughout the whole company. But Joe was smart enough to know how to “gain” the CEO’s trust. The CEO puts all his eggs in one basket with Joe. The office mantra became: “If you’re following Joe’s decisions, you have nothing to worry about.” Everyone knew it was smoke and mirrors – the CEO saw what wanted to see.

In the last year, the company experienced a 25-30% turnover, which directly translated to client retention.

To this day, clients are jumping ship in droves; simultaneously the company is losing employees in leadership roles. It’s no secret things have gone south.

In August of 2010 I saw my own way out. I was presented with an amazing opportunity (by a former coworker) to move to Boulder and work for a creative advertising agency called Moxie Sozo.  When I left, I was open about why: “The direction and leadership style aren’t working. It’s no longer a fun, trusting environment to be in. There’s no loyalty here.” At the request of the CEO, I gave him an exit interview, information he thanked me for.  Here are a few excerpts:

How would you describe employee morale and motivation in the company?

-Morale seems to be directly correlated with the performance of the sales team.  If they were  happy with how much money they were bringing in then that would dictate the morale of the rest of the company. When they were not satisfied with how much money they were bringing in, morale plummeted – quickly.

-Incentives (NOT within the sales department) seemed sporadic and inconsistent.  It was hard to stay motivated when sales dictated the morale of the company.

Were you given clear goals and did you know what was expected of you in your job?

-In all of my roles at _________, goals were usually not clearly defined.  It seemed that goals and expectations changed direction so often that it was hard to clearly understand them. 

-It also seemed that goals were only created when something was going wrong, instead of setting long-term, proactive goals. 

Did you receive sufficient feedback between performance evaluations?

-Not really.  I would receive a lot of feedback during performance evaluations, but decisions were then made that were inconsistent with the feedback – e.g., I was removed from my position as Director of Research; days before I received overwhelmingly positive feedback in my performance evaluation. 

-There were times when feedback was sufficient, but that was after big decisions were made and not before. 

IN WITH THE NEW! What’s different at Moxie Sozo?

When I was interviewed by the Creative Director at Moxie Sozo, I was told “You and Chris are running Business Development. That means you figure out how to do it. I hired you because you’re good at what you do.” He said it and he meant it. That has been exactly what I’ve been doing ever since. This built a real sense of trust between me, my boss and my team.

Our organizational structure has very little hierarchy. The Principal/Creative Director oversees creative aspects of all work but there are no “bosses.” All departments and employees work side-by-side.

Decision-making is vastly different here.  Everyone trusts everyone else and their decisions. It all begins with the hiring process. Most staff here were referred by a current employee. We have people calling all the time asking us if we’re hiring. We bring in people we know and trust, and trust builds. It’s open and transparent – nobody holds back. We all know clearly where the business is headed. Issues are brought out on the table, and there is no gossip and chatter – there’s never a need for it. It’s truly one of the strangest things I’ve ever encountered in a work environment—all 38 of us genuinely love working together!

It does mean you need thick skin. If someone doesn’t agree with what you’re doing, they’ll let you know. It’s an effective way to correct mistakes efficiently, instead of feeling in the dark. All of these elements make Moxie Sozo feel like a family – a functional family.

There’s really no employee turnover here. I’ve been here for over a year now; one person left because her husband took a new job in Chicago. The people here make things fun and everyone is truly in it for the long-haul. Nobody dishes on past employees because nobody quits.

I’m incredibly productive here.  I feel the sky’s the limit with what I’m pursuing. I know the Principal of the agency is invested in me, which makes me feel invested in the company. I want the success of Moxie Sozo as much as I want success for myself. My partners and I aren’t competitive; we cooperate and approach each opportunity together. At this point I don’t care about who is the lead on an account; I’m excited to pitch because I know they’ll be happy as clients. We want to work on projects we have a passion for, and we can afford to be picky that way. We all work side-by-side; the designers even help with business development. Earlier this year one of our designers poked his head in my office and said: “Can you go after RTD, I would love to design for them, I know I could do amazing work for them!” I am thrilled to report that RTD recently hired Moxie Sozo for creative services. That same designer helped me with the visuals of our proposal to RTD as well.

And that spirit is an exact mirror of our relationships with clients. In 12 years we’ve never lost a client to another agency. I truly believe that is fundamentally a result of our nurturing work environment here at Moxie Sozo.

I WANT to be here – I wake up and can’t wait to start the day. I LOVE it here!”

Building Company Culture

Here are a few lessons on building company culture that can be drawn from Jen’s experience:

1)      Trust is everything. If you have a trust problem in your culture – which often centers around one person – it undermines everything. How does a CEO learn whether they have a trust problem? Try a culture assessment.
2)      Praise publicly, criticize privately. No matter how unrealistic ideas are or how much you disagree with them, never criticize someone publicly or behind their back. Provide all feedback directly to people. See #1.

3)      Collaboration requires openness.  If you live by titles and hierarchy, there’s a good chance you have turf wars. Place more attention on clarifying decision rights. This is more effective in driving collaboration than a false sense of power through titles.  If you want people to reach across boundaries, talk about it in your staff meetings and encourage cooperation.

4)      Be customer-centric.  Everyone wants to be part of winning and that always means happy customers, put your money where your mouth is. Reward behaviors that delight the customer.

5)      Hire right. Jen said it well “It all begins with hiring the right people.” Never compromise on a hiring decision with someone who doesn’t fit your culture. If you make a bad hire, fix it. Fast.

Download our Corporate Culture Tool: 3 Step Process for Assessing Culture Fit for Hiring

Lisa Jackson and Gerry Schmidt are corporate culture experts and authors of the book “Transforming Corporate Culture: 9 Natural Truths for Being Fit to Compete.” They offer a proven method to teach leaders how to evolve their corporate cultures to perform better, innovate faster, and show they truly care about people in an unprecedented era of rapid change and transformation.

Visit them on the web at www.CorporateCulturePros.com or follow them on Twitter at http://twitter.com/corporatecultur

Leave a Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.