How To Choose The Best Workplace Culture For You

Let’s look at a definition of culture. We all think of our countries changing culture but corporations have cultures, too. The dictionary defines a culture as, “the attitudes and behavior that are characteristic of a particular social group or organization.”

A little further research describes, “all the knowledge and values shared by a society or a particular society at a particular time and place; such as early Mayan civilization.” Once you have some experience in the workplace — as many of you have — you quickly realize that all corporate cultures are not created equal.

The best way for me to explain culture is to give you a look at my experience in Corporate America, in which I can attempt to explain the variations you may see and what to look for when choosing a place to work.

United States Marine Corps

I spent four years here, and as you can imagine, it’s an old and traditional culture and very male-dominated. It’s built around delivering a result in war time. It’s built on a work hard/play hard attitude. The organization has very high expectations for very obvious reasons. It’s very physical, some may find it vulgar, and it’s not for everyone.

My Advice: You would want to know this culture before joining.

Kugler Trucking Inc.

I spent 10 years in this family business doing just about everything from driving a truck, to being a mechanic, and I spent the last two years running the business. Family businesses have unique cultures and dynamics. There are large and small family businesses, so if you choose to work for one, beware, it’s not easy. One of the reasons I left after a decade there was the culture. I saw it cost too many people their jobs. Decision making was unpredictable, rules varied and relatives could come in and change the world.

My Advice: Make sure you understand how pay, promotions, reviews and rules all work. The culture here was that of a dysfunctional family.

Frito Lay

I spent 13 years working at Frito Lay, and it remains the finest company I had the pleasure of being employed at. Having said that, it wasn’t for everyone. The culture of Frito was one of delivering results, regardless of how long — or what — it took. It was a culture where the company was growing and the sky was the limit for those who delivered what they promised. It required long hours and a heavy commitment. There were politicians, but in my years there, results were what mattered. As I climbed the corporate ladder there were expectations and politics, but overall it was work hard, play hard and deliver. It was not a culture particularly friendly to women at the time I was there. One thing you had to understand is that it was a PepsiCo company, so there are great jobs but few long term careers. Frito was a bit of a benevolent dictatorship.

My Advice: It worked well. That was the culture.

Pepsi Cola

Pepsi is another PepsiCo company, so the great jobs/few careers rule applied. Moving from Frito Lay to Pepsi was a surprise. I expected a similar culture, but it was very different. The culture was not as results driven but rather more political and about who you knew. It was a fun culture, more so than Frito, and results mattered, but not quite the direct kind like at Frito. There was more hype and more fiefdoms than I’d experienced before. They were very female-friendly and opportunities abounded. Decision making was political for the most part, and if you could live and negotiate the politics without blowing your brains out, it was a nice place to work.

My Advice: There are several things above you’d want to know when deciding to go to work in this type of corporate culture. The culture here was political, mixed with a bit of dysfunction and a lot of fun.

Compaq Computer

Moving from Pepsi to Compaq was a culture shock. Both Pepsi and Frito were results-oriented companies. They also were very marketing and operations oriented. Compaq was very different. One, it was a younger organization just over a decade old when I joined. It also was the fastest-growing company in the world at the time. Therefore, the culture was constantly in flux. The original leaders knew what they wanted and had it for awhile. But amidst the constant change of growth and their maniacal focus on managing everything by the quarter, it was what many thought of as the ‘chaos model’. Like Pepsi, they were very female friendly, but it was only to a point. Top jobs were male-dominated. Of course it worked, and there are not necessarily right or wrong answers, or good and bad. The corporate culture here was short-term driven and very collegial.

My Advice: A corporate culture is how the group of people in the corporation executes their work and makes decisions.

After my stint at Compaq Computer, I moved on to leading large change projects at some major corporations. I will list just four here.

Chef Solutions

Chef was a creation of several small food manufacturers with very distinct products being brought together based on the synergy someone saw but didn’t pan out. It was the product of a sales job by one or two leaders who convinced a bigger company to drop a billion dollars to make this work. From a cultural point of view, the task of bringing together everything from a Mom and Pop salad maker to a $200 million a year deli manufacturer, somehow missed the to-do list. The culture was every man or woman for themselves, and it was quite a show.

My Advice: When joining a company, especially a new or merging one, beware and do your homework. However well intentioned the original creators were, the result is that Chef is in bankruptcy and the small, once thriving companies that made it Chef are now out of business and many, many long-term employees lost their jobs. The culture was patchwork at best.


Our work was actually with a third party logistics provider who served the Schlumberger warehouse for them. They provided oil field supplies around the world to the oil platforms in need. The interesting thing about the culture here was it was totally dominated by corporate Schlumberger and not the third party provider. That was the norm in this operation. Schlumberger corporate was very directive, made every decision, was very male-dominated, and I guess you could say not too ‘user friendly’. The culture was very autocratic to say the least.

My Advice: The point here again is not good or bad; it is that you could go to work for the third party company thinking they were great people, only to have something very different when you came to work.

Restoration Hardware

This is a company operating 100 retail stores for high end home furnishings. It was a fun company. The culture was infectious at times and centered on the company CEO who was as they say, a self-made man. He was driven beyond belief, quick, fun, super high energy and expected the same of everyone who worked there. The culture was very predictable in that it was unpredictable. All decisions ran through the CEO, and the culture at the headquarters was quite different than the field operating culture. It was very female-friendly, and many top executives were women. The culture would be be described as fun, dysfunctional and very fraternal.

My Advice: The stores were ran through the CEO’s personality. Again, not good or bad just know what you are signing up for.


Everyone has, of course, heard of Caterpillar, long-time successful company operating around the world. When I was there, at least the $4 billion division I worked with was very female-friendly. It was an old culture, steeped in tradition of “this is how we do things”. There was a strong “we — they” mentality regarding the workers and management. The office environment was often like working in a library. The culture was very collegial and a bit elitist at time on the management side.

My Advice: There were tremendously bright people there, but everyone was bound by either politics or tradition.

The Bottom Line …

The point this month is be aware of the culture you are joining in your next job. There is not one that is right or wrong, most just are. If you aren’t aware of what you face, the perfect job you thought you had may just turn out to be a nightmare.