As a mid-career professional who has served in quite a few organizations in my time I have always either been told or made felt that I was part of a bigger organizational “family.”  Each time I hear this, I could not help but smile as the famous song” We are family” by Sister Sledge was playing in my head. Coming from an Asian culture where we place a high emphasis on family values, I found this notion a very healthy and homogeneous practice. One could argue it can create a conducive environment that propel productivity and staff satisfaction in the long run. Similarly, one could argue it is a false assumption. I leave you to draw your own experience to be your own judge.  If I am to talk about myself,  in past tense, I have been programed to believe that whoever did not fit into this “family” culture is a misfit. Hence, I have been an ardent supporter of this notion fully embracing the family culture in all my previous organizations until I met Connor Diemand-Yauman.

I would like to say that a few months back  I was exposed to an alternative viewpoint through my current workplace, the Philanthropy University. What is interesting about Philanthropy University is that, it is a startup nonprofit organization run under the charismatic leadership of Connor Diemand-Yauman. The Forbes Magazine has ranked Connor “30 under 30” category for brightest young stars, breakout talents and change agents. I am fortunate to be the second employee of Philanthropy University to witness the new organizational culture in the making under his leadership.

Through free association, It occurred to me that Philanthropy University is all about a different culture in the making during my first week into the onboarding. In the interest of the article, I am not going to mention the culture right now but you will discover it as you read this post. So in essence according to Connor “Organizations are not families”. Just imagine, during my first week into the job, how I would have grasped this inalienable truth. At least for someone like me who has grown up to believe such a thing does exist. I could have easily been flabbergasted by the idea of no family culture. Instead, I was eager to explore the nuances. I had the most amazing and by far the best onboarding during my first two weeks at Philanthropy University. During which time I slowly realized the facade of the so-called “family culture” that once upon a time, I came to see in a worldly light.

Today, with growing practice and a deep understanding about both practices, it is fair for me to take a critical approach of the two. I  have finally realized how disconnected the whole idea of   “family culture” especially is in an organizational setup. If I may, do a behavioral analysis as to why it is so disconnected with the reality, here is why. “Families look out for one another and share a deep, unrelenting (genetic) bond that unites members through thick and thin”. However, as Connor puts it “Organizations are not families”. This is why he fails to see the sincerity of an organization running as a family vs the actual practice: “Unlike in a family, employers should have no expectation that employees will be with them forever, nor should they expect them to make long-term sacrifices for the sake of their organization’s success”.  That is largely because an employee’s tenure at an organization isn’t guaranteed regardless of performance or contribution. The term “family” implies unquestioning, lifelong group membership; for the sake of both employees and employers, no such promise exists in organizations.  

Hence, Connor borrows DaVita’s Kent Thiry version in a metaphoric sense to describe his style of management as to how we should operate, collaborate, and grow. He refers Philanthropy University as a “Town”. In any town as you step in, you will see the familiar sighting of a rather signpost which says either “Welcome to xx” and also “ You are passing through xx” . Such are the two choices for anyone who happens to be visiting a town or a company. In a town, people come and go; some decide to settle down, while others are just passing through. A town has vibrant customs and traditions.  So does any company. Some towns have different dialects and wardrobes. Towns with the most developed, complex, and shared cultures are typically stronger and more beloved by citizens than towns without. Regardless of tenure, each citizen is respected and given opportunities and recognition commensurate with their contributions. The same can be said about a company.

There will be certain speed limits for driving in a town, some areas should be driven at a high speed while some areas with a moderate or low speed. Same is expected in an organization. There will be times you are expected to fire your full cylinders and there will be days where the workload is less and you can go at your own pace. A town has laws and rules of governance. These rules are spoken and unspoken.

The best towns proactively invest in their citizens, constantly striving to make them smarter, stronger, and more efficient. A town has invaders and competitors. In times of threat, towns rally together, identify competitive advantages, and exploit competing towns weaknesses. Same can be said about the modus of operandi for any company. Like in any town or a company, citizens /employees have different functions that each support the overarching entity. Some work in the fire department ( HR department), some may go on to work in the town planning (Business development) while others may opt to work in the inland revenue ( Finance department) or transport divisions (logistics department). A town is an enduring organism that no single person owns. While every town has leaders, even the most senior are held accountable to the town’s laws and customs.

As Connor nicely put it “town has resources that town members can both consume and create. When a town’s resources are limited, citizens feel the crunch; in times of success, citizens share in the bounty”. It is the same with a company: while you are in good business you get your bonus and when the company is going through a financial crisis the increments are on hold or the worst case scenario is an inevitable layoff.

What I have come to associate with Philanthropy University over the past three months is that people care for each other deeply as much as in a family culture. Everyone is so protective of the town culture as much as protecting a family culture. What striking most is that everyone knows that at some point few of the employees would inevitably leave the organization in spite of the best chemistry that they have. It can be due to various reasons from career advancement to personal reasons. Everyone is very cognizant of the fact that employees will come and go but what matters is while acknowledging these factors while preserving the spirit of the town.

What I closely observed is how Connor does the town planning. As he built the town brick by brick, he is very concern how he lay those bricks. He is very particular when it comes to staff recruitments. He spends so much time selecting a candidate. Unlike in a family culture where everyone is expected to behave in a certain manner that exemplify the traits, Connor welcome the Towners to acknowledge the town values. Anyone can be whoever they wish to be. The towners have a weekly “check in” where everyone shares their work, the progress and challenges encountered during the week. Here is an opportunity for everyone to share their point of view, feelings. What is significant about this practice is that one gets to share his her own vulnerability too. If one does not know of something there is nothing to be ashamed of.  If you have failed to do something you share them with the team. Everyone celebrates everyone’s victories as well as everyone celebrates everyone’s failures. As a result, employees share a strong bond with each other. When it comes to recruiting new staff not just the senior management was involved in the decision making but every single employee was consulted during the process. Everyone individually assess how this new person will help to grow or sustain the existing town.  As a result of this, there is a healthy outlook on life. There is no unwanted tension or competition among staff. Everyone believes the town is more important over individuals. As a result of such an ideology, I have come to associate that this is the only place in my entire work history that I have come to experience zero office politics. No one talks behind anyone’s back. There are no so-called office “favorites” or cliques. It is truly homogeneous in that respect.  With time, our bond toward the town grew stronger. In essence, these are some of the blessings that I enjoy every single day in this town.

In sum,  this is what I have come to realize, that“family culture” is very much an oath taken for an unrealistic lifelong commitment that is rationalized in the name of the family. On the contrary,  I feel the “town culture” is more of “ free association” with a less binding culture and more free thought and movement.