52 - A Taste of Culture

A Taste of Culture Brought to Life

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When company culture is best explained by actions not words.

Welcoming the Visitors

Emmanuel Sanchez smiled quietly to himself as the newly hatched idea began to take shape in his mind. He enjoyed letting his imagination play around with what started out as just an instinct—a gut reaction—but the more he thought about it, the more he realized that this was the best response possible to the unusual request.

It had all begun yesterday when he received an email from one of the senior corporate officers of RJR International who had been assigned to help define the purpose and distinctive elements of the conglomerate’s corporate culture. The executive wanted Emmanuel’s perspective, and he was flattered…but a little wary.

RJR was at its core a manufacturing business, and as an engineer with more than 20 years of tenure, Emmanuel knew the company from the plant floor up. As he rose through the organization, he moved from day-to-day engineering to becoming something of a plant expert, travelling around the world to trouble shoot manufacturing issues in a wide variety of RJR operations. No matter where he ended up, he found that each time he set foot in the factory, he felt like he was coming home. His feet traced the same familiar path across the shop floor, no matter how unfamiliar the country beyond the factory walls.

All that he had been asked to do was join a meeting with an outside consultant whom he had met once before, and partly out of loyalty to the company, Emmanuel wanted to help the senior executive out. The consultant seemed amiable enough, and possessed at least a workable insight into manufacturing systems–Emmanuel had been with him while he toured the plant. One thing Emmanuel remembered vividly from that visit was the consultant’s comments about organizational culture. He recalled, and in fact had jotted down, the consultant’s (rather esoteric and abstract, he thought) definition of culture as, “the shared, taken-for-granted implicit assumptions that a group holds and that determine how it perceives, thinks about and reacts to its various environments.” It was a quote from someone named Ed Schein, and while it seemed accurate, it certainly felt remote and academic, but Emmanuel felt he got the gist of it and could agree.

As he toured the plant with his visitors that day some weeks ago, Emmanuel sensed that what they were trying to uncover was simply his opinion and experience of how those in the company “were with each other, especially when no one in charge was looking.” Emmanuel was a man who tended to be short on words and longer on action, and he felt that he couldn’t provide the kind of high-flown, ethereal perspective on culture that the consultant was expecting. But then the idea had struck, and he set about his preparations with both mischief and delight. A brief call with the executive had confirmed his suspicions that what they were looking for were those things that would help them recognize what mattered in the company culture and that expressed people’s sense of identity as proud members of RJR. He certainly knew what mattered most to him and hoped he could convey such deep feelings with clarity—just not in the way anyone expected.

Showing Rather than Telling

The knock on the door signalled the arrival of his guests—the executive and consultant—and as his wife Rita gathered the last of their young son’s toys from the living room floor, Emmanuel went to open the door to welcome them into his home. Greetings and introductions followed, and with their two young children peering around the corner as inquisitive witnesses, the four adults sat down at the table.

It was not everyday that such an opportunity presented itself, and so Emmanuel had needed to barter with particular vigor for the prized bottle of imported wine that he had exacted from his neighbor. It would take quite a while to repay the debt, but it was worth it, if only to see the surprised delight of the consultant as his host produced one of his guest’s favorite wines. With appetizers served and the social pleasantries of early conversation suitably facilitated by the second glasses of wine, the discovery process could move to the main course…literally.

Emmanuel knew that he was fortunate to have a cousin rightly placed for just such an occasion as this. The local culinary specialty reserved for magnificent and celebratory meals required four days of careful preparation. Since both he and Rita were working long hours, it was his cousin who had come to the rescue and completed the arduous preparation process necessary to produce the highly favored dish that Emmanuel now proudly placed before his appreciative guests.  He was at first a little nonplussed that his efforts should have gone unnoticed when the consultant asked if they might explore the questions of culture in the RJR organization. But he was relieved when his response, “I know what you want to learn, but I’ve decided to show you, more than discuss it,” seemed to satisfy his guests.

Slowly, the evening played out, just as Emmanuel had engineered. The sheer pleasure of an unhurried meal together, with newly forming friendships, in a family home, enfolded by a warm welcome, all spoke eloquently of things for which Emmanuel could not find words.

This was the RJR he knew and it was the RJR that had welcomed him so many years ago. Certainly the work was hard, and of late, more demanding than ever, but around his table, resplendent with the simple pleasures of great food, good wine and simple conversation, Emmanuel found his voice to answer, less obliquely than it may at first have seemed, the questions of his visitors. And with the final revelation of a bottle of port from the famed ’63 vintage, one of two that his father had inherited from his much wealthier cousin, Emmanuel hoped his message was well understood. He occasionally caught the eye of the consultant who said less and less and listened more and more.

“Perhaps,” Emmanuel thought, “I have succeeded.”

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