The Corporate Ladder

How to understand your company's culture and be successful within it.

Many young Christians I meet hesitate to describe themselves as “ambitious,” as if that quality is something to be embarrassed about. They’ll say that they “work hard” or that they want to “be excellent” or even maybe that they “hope to succeed” at work. But ambition? I get the impression that many feel that ambition is for ladder-climbing jerks.

I disagree! I have yet to meet a young professional whose stated goal is to become highly mediocre, to leave no mark whatsoever.

Professional ambition certainly can be distasteful, even sinful. The Bible makes it clear that “no one can serve two masters. For you will hate one and love the other; you will be devoted to one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money” (Luke 16:13).

But it’s important to remember that God made you. It’s not an accident that you have the drive and intelligence and skills to excel in the professional world. When I meet young people in search of career advice, I try to help them understand that figuring out how to flourish at their company does not make them Gordon Gecko.

Understanding how to flourish requires a good understanding of your company and its culture. For people starting out in their careers, my advice for helping them flourish is very simple: Know your company’s culture, and know yourself. There are a number of great resources for self-diagnosis, so my focus is usually on the first half of the equation. I’ve found very few resources that help assess corporate culture. But it’s a fact that not every great company will bring out the best in you, and you won’t be inspired to flourish if you steer yourself to the wrong corporate climate. The sooner you find the best climate for you, the sooner you will step on a path toward a successful, rewarding career you can be proud of.

It’s easiest (and you’re most objective) to understand the culture when you’re starting out. To begin, I suggest looking at four factors:

1. How are people rewarded and incentivized? What characteristics or behavior garner the most rewards in terms of money, title or other accolades? Does pushy, competitive behavior seem to pay off consistently?

I worked briefly for one company where it seemed like face time with the executive team was the only way to get ahead. In contrast, one of the best companies I ever worked for, Trammell Crow Company, emphasized goals and accountability, and provided plenty of progress tracking, along with a clear mission of client service.

2. How are decisions made? Are people empowered and encouraged to make decisions on matters within their purview?

One of the things I loved about working at Trammell Crow and have tried to emulate at my nonprofit, 4word, is the culture of empowerment. Team members at Trammell Crow were encouraged and expected to make appropriate decisions and act on them, rather than running every little thing up the chain of command for approval and consent.

When every decision has to be made by committee, that’s a red flag for me. It’s a problem from an employee perspective, because it usually means that people are afraid to make mistakes and don’t want to accept blame if something goes wrong. It’s also just plain discouraging: It sends the message that your employer doesn’t have confidence in your judgment or your capabilities. Few people thrive in that environment, least of all those early in their careers.

It’s a problem from a corporate perspective, too, because it bogs down the work process and discourages innovation. In my experience, an empowered team will make some mistakes, but more often than not, people tend to get it right, and they are happier, more invested workers for having been given the chance to try.

3. How do managers and executives spend their time? Are the leaders in your company out interacting with clients? Do they spend time learning about innovations in the industry? How much do you think they understand about the real work that you do? Are they reasonably accessible to employees or customers?

Or, in contrast, are they spending the majority of their time locked away in their offices, talking to each other, or bogged down in some endless decision-making process? In my experience, the more engaged and accessible the leadership, the healthier and more pleasant the company will be.

4. What kinds of stories get told over and over?

I remember at one company I worked for, being shocked the first time I interacted with the leadership team from a different city. The visiting executives had brought incredibly lavish gifts to share — but really to show off — with the rest of us. To start our meeting, someone made a joke about that extravagant restaurant bill that “we racked up in Seoul, Korea last month.” It all felt very showy and arrogant and disconnected from the real and valuable work that our company was doing.

At Trammell Crow when executives got together, there was subtle competition of another kind: who could share the best employee survey results or the best story of how one of our engineers went above and beyond the call of duty to keep a building running against all odds. At 4word, to try to build up this kind of culture. I make it a point to start every meeting with a real testimonial of something we are doing that impacted someone’s life.

These four points can’t tell you everything about a company, but they’re a good start. If you’re interested in a deeper analysis, check out this helpful list from the Harvard Business Review blog.

Putting Your Knowledge to Work

The best case scenario is to learn as much as you can about a company and its culture and make an informed decision before accepting a job. Most people looking for their first or even second job, however, take the best job that they can in the interest of learning or building a resume. And that’s OK, because at some point, you have to dive in and experience day-to-day life at a company — really any company — before the points I outlined above take on real meaning. It may take you years and perhaps several tries to find a corporate culture that fits you and that you fit in. For some of my friends it took no time at all. You likely won’t know when starting out, so be sure that while you’re building your resume, you can also build important assessment skills for diagnosing corporate culture.

Once you understand your company’s culture and what it takes to succeed there, you can make an informed decision about your personal goals moving forward. No company gets it right all of the time, but in general, I ask my young mentees three questions to help them figure out whether they may be in the right environment or should consider looking elsewhere:

1. Is your company a place where you feel that you can succeed, without compromising your faith or your code of ethics? If not, it may be time to get serious about investing your time and energy elsewhere. Or you might need to reassess your expectations.

2. Do the types of jobs you would logically progress toward offer you the type of impact you want to make? Some people — often sales professionals — are highly motivated when monetary rewards are directly tied to performance and immediate. Others — generally management track professionals — tend to be more motivated by the impact they have on their teams’ lives and careers. And many people are highly philanthropic and want to feel their work is contributing to great meaningful social change. Make sure that whether you are one of the above or somewhere in between, that your company can offer a job that fits.

3. Finally, is the way that senior management spends its time the way that you want to spend your time? Knowing where your company’s journey ends is crucial to knowing whether you want to eventually get there.

Not everyone feels a strong desire to advance professionally, but if you do, trust that God made you that way. There’s nothing wrong with advancing up the corporate ladder as long as you’ve made certain it’s a ladder worth climbing.

Copyright 2014 4word. All rights reserved.

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About the Author

Diane Paddison

Diane Paddison, 4word founder and president, is a Harvard MBA graduate, former global executive of two Fortune 500 companies and one Fortune 1000 company, and serves as an independent director for two corporations and four not-for-profits including The Salvation Army’s National Advisory Board and the Harvard Business School Christian Fellowship Alumni Association. She is a leading advocate for the professional Christian women community, Diane published Work, Love, Pray in 2011, laying the foundation for 4word. Diane speaks on life/work balance, mentoring/sponsorship, and impactful leadership at events across the country. She authors weekly posts at and is a featured columnist for Christianity Today’s Today’s Christian Woman. Diane and her husband, Chris, have four children and live in Dallas, Texas.


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