Five Tips For Working With a Company’s Personality

Regardless of your role, learning to understand a company’s personality, culture and way of doing business can help you craft an effective plan to counter obstacles to success.

There’s a lot of discussions nowadays about company culture, core values and mission statements. While there can be a cynical tendency to treat these as the checklist items of the latest management fad, I think there’s really something there. Companies do have personalities, and if you can read them correctly, you can predict how a company will make decisions or respond to challenges, and at the very least instruct you on the sort of questions they will ask.

It’s not always so simple, however. Understanding a company’s personality and adjusting to it for project success is a continuous effort of analysis and interaction.

Roadblock…or Opportunity?

At one client of mine, the project’s objective was (in my words) attempting to make Microsoft SharePoint work like Facebook. I thought I was doing a great job to question this immediately, as it sounded like a really bad idea. “Why do this?” I asked. “Why not call up Facebook and try to buy a private instance?”

I was told that the client had a strong bias towards building things themselves – this was the company’s personality. As a consequence, I was told to simply drop the question. So we built a prototype that tried to twist SharePoint into uncomfortable shapes, and given that it was the sort of project that should never have been attempted, I think we did a pretty good job. But the client? The client was ultimately dissatisfied and proceeded to look for a product to buy.

So what happened? We thought we understood the company’s personality, and maybe we were right. In the end, though, they did exactly what we thought they wouldn’t do. What could we have done differently?

Lessons Learned

I think there were several factors at play here.

First, we may have simply been wrong about the company’s personality. That assessment was handed to me by someone else on my second day with the company, and I had no information to make that assessment myself.

Second, right or wrong about their personality, I shouldn’t have let myself be warned off when I asked the question initially. I should have taken that up with the project stakeholders to hear their thoughts on it.

Third, it’s always possible that the only way the company was going to realize the need to purchase a solution was to see how difficult it was to build something custom. From that perspective, our prototype was valuable: We helped them get to a conclusion they would not have reached on their own.

In short, having been alerted to the company’s personality, I should have confronted it and talked about it. Leaving it unspoken – and assuming that we understood the personality and its consequences for the project – simply led to frustration.

Rules of Engagement

So what are the steps to engaging with a company with full recognition of its personality and culture?

  1. Be aware of the company’s personality, but constantly test your assumptions to improve your understanding.
  2. Be open with your client about the tendencies you see. Ask questions about how to modify your project’s approach and communications to fit the client.
  3. Understand when your project will be in conflict with the company culture and prepare for it. Sometimes you’ll have to challenge it, and the case you make will have to be extra strong.
  4. Work to the strong suits of the company culture. A company’s personality will have positive attributes you can leverage to your project’s advantage.
  5. Be respectful of the company’s culture and personality. You may have to challenge it for your project, but you don’t have to be adversarial when you do. And you’re definitely not going to be able to change it.

This recognition, respect and collaboration can all lead to a more positive project experience and build to project success.

This is an edited excerpt from John’s book, “Project Leader to Project Believer”. Other excerpts and blog posts are at