School Daze

Corporate culture can be a lot like high school. The popular kids have the ear of a senior executive and get blatant or subtly preferential treatment as a result. The unpopular kids find themselves clustered around the fringes of the organization like their pimply-faced 11th-grade counterparts, bemoaning the cards the fates have dealt them. The rank and file, plugging away in the middle of the social hierarchy, either try to remain invisible and simply get through another week, or slip quietly out the door in search of greener pastures elsewhere.

And just like high school, a lot of popular kids get picked first for teams for good reason. They may well be the organizational first-round draft picks, with the skills and track records that generate the saleable products or product sales. And maybe some of those unpopular corporate kids get short shrift for justifiable reasons as well. Perhaps they don't play well with others, have questionable hygiene, or don't have the skills that pay the bills.

On the other side of the cultural coin, however, are that VP's buddies, who may have developed a relationship through outside interests or through a long-standing working relationship, but now enjoy privileged status that hampers both their own growth, through a lack of critical evaluation, and that of the organization as well. In this cliquish corporate culture, quieter, more promising individuals can disappear among the overlooked masses, and the difficulties surrounding potentially problematic employees might be written off to nothing more than personality differences.

I suppose that those of us who weren't head cheerleader or captain of the football team hope that once school days are over, we enter a world where everyone is measured on performance-based merit. But in reality, many organizations consciously eschew this type of "structured," "hierarchal" environment as a bad thing: It's too stiff, or it doesn't foster creativity, or isn't family-oriented (there's a dynamic I have no desire to extend to my workplace). But the result is that organizations will be stunted culturally and, by extension, financially if they don't find a way to grow up.

While it may seem like this sort of schoolyard dynamic can be written off as an issue of style or company personality, it inevitably insinuates itself into the organizational lifeblood: information. This informational hoarding may take the form of knowledge about employees themselves: a department head may forgo the organization's standard HR review process, preferring a more informal chat with "his guys." In doing so, he may even convince himself he's simply maintaining his successful, friendly style. In reality, he's keeping information about employees from the organization, which can prevent HR from identifying problems as well as potential stars in whom the organization should invest. Maybe this misguided manager wants to keep these would be rising stars to himself, or maintain a spotless hiring track record by not exposing a poor employee to potential dismissal. Or maybe he just doesn't like the structure. In any case, the organization will suffer from a lack of unified HR information.

The informational hoarding can extend well beyond HR, though. Many times, a powerful corporate clique will have business intelligence they feel proprietary about and keep to themselves in an effort to protect their job security. An obvious manifestation would be sales leads where salespeople log contacts into a CRM system and prospect from the pooled data. But if one division is allowed to tap the information without contributing, the organization will suffer both in terms of morale and productivity. information.

While he does not make the high-school correlation, Robert J. Herbold tackles this corporate-culture phenomenon in his book The Fiefdom Syndrome. While acknowledging that battles over territory and turf are fundamental to human nature, he argues that uncontrolled, they can be incredibly destructive. The result of these fiefdoms is that organizations lose productivity, repeat efforts in various divisions, make decisions without a clear view of the whole picture, and lack truly collaborative intellectual and creative processes.

Herbold presents solutions formulated from his decades of experience in fiefdom-busting at Proctor & Gamble, IBM, Coca-Cola, and Microsoft. In large part, they come down to organizational maturity. There must be a top-level mandate to unify informational systems and adhere to corporate policies. This can take the form of enterprise-wide content and intelligence deployments, an intranet, or simply expecting a department head to adhere to the same HR review procedures. But in all cases it must be a mandate. The more deeply ingrained the popularity-contest corporate culture, the less popular this leadership move will be. And the more resistance it confronts, the more the change is needed.

Once school days pass, it's lonely at the top. To lead effectively, one must make tough decisions that may be met with hostility. But the true leader will rise above popularity and—through organizational health, an upward mobility path for promising employees, and a positive and productive collaborative environment—will garner respect and admiration instead.