3 Company Culture Lessons from Greg Smith’s NYT Resignation Letter

Recognize This! – Your company culture can withstand a multitude of shocks – but should it?

I’m guessing most people in the world of HR, management or leadership have read Greg Smith’s resignation letter from Goldman Sachs – which appeared in the New York Times.

Personally, I was more interested in the reaction from management, leadership and HR bloggers and editors I respect. Just a few lessons offered by these thought leaders:

1) Proactively manage your culture, or it will manage you.

From Ron Thomas, Principal at StrategyFocusedHR, as reported in TLNT:

“What happens when the culture that you bought into changes? … Culture, in so many companies, has shifted during these tough economic times, and the stress for survival has caused fault lines to appear in the cultural framework. These fault lines,  if not examined and repaired, will eventually produce a level of discontent with the talent pool that is a breeding ground for this type of behavior.”

Some believe organization culture “just happens.” And that is unfortunately true in many cases. But wise leaders work to proactively manipulate and manage their culture as Ron describes. Doing so leads to culture changes over time that leaders often never intended or desired.

2) Take your values off the wall and put them to work to manage your culture.

From the HR Capitalist, Kris Dunn:

“How do you prevent that type of culture decay and the behavior that follows?  Start by repeating after me: ‘Your corporate/company values that you have on the wall don’t mean anything unless they become operational in how performance is measured.’ … If you want to really drive a culture and not let it slip over time, you’ve got to identify the DNA it takes for people to be successful in your company.  You’ll use the factors across all employees in your company. Then you ruthlessly use the potential factors to HIRE, PROMOTE/REWARD and FIRE.”

Kris suggests the best way to manage your culture – put your values to work. If you are not willing to take the hard actions – removing those who violate the values for whatever reasons (even if they are “producing”) – as well as the easier (or at least more enjoyable) actions of recognizing and rewarding those who do live the values, then those values are nothing more than art on the wall. You must be willing to make those values real in the daily work of every employee.

3) Create a culture that can withstand one-off employee actions or adapt to employee needs.

From John Zappe, also reported in TLNT:

“The other issue raised by Smith’s public resignation is the more familiar one of burning bridges. Smith is ‘toast’ as far as Wall Street is concerned, says Blooomberg columnist William Cohan, author of Money and Power: How Goldman Sachs Came to Rule the World. … But I have to believe there are times when a larger  service is performed by going public in the way Greg Smith did.”

Sure, Mr. Smith took a drastic measure regarding a failed organizational culture as he saw it. But he offers a clear lesson for leaders – can your culture withstand an employee action that may be out of line? Equally as important, if employee responses to a negative culture environment are legitimate and presented in a way that can be addressed, are you prepared to do so?


Derek Irvine

About Derek Irvine

The VP of Client Strategy and Consulting at Globoforce, Derek Irvine is one of the world’s foremost experts on employee recognition and engagement, helping business leaders set a higher vision and ambition for their organizations. As a renowned speaker and co-author of "The Power of Thanks" and "Winning with a Culture of Recognition," he teaches companies how to use recognition to proactively manage company culture. Derek holds a B.Comm and Masters of Business Studies from the Smurfit Graduate Business School at University College Dublin.

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