Do You Know What Your Company Culture ‘Smells’ Like?

Over the years, I’ve had the honor to encounter hundreds of companies, organizations and institutions all around the world and to observe their amazingly varied corporate cultures. 

No two corporate cultures are exactly alike. They each have a unique fingerprint, allowing them to innovate and to grow, and yet it is virtually impossible to define what it specifically stands for. You can try to ‘describe’ a corporate culture, but it is inconceivable to fully ‘identify’ them, and just as hard to change them. Yet, as the famous line by Peter Drucker goes: “Culture eats Strategy for breakfast.”

You can try and understand a company before you join, read up on all the GlassDoor reviews to try to contemplate what it will be like, but it’s only when you walk through the door and submerge yourself in the organization that you’ll fully sense the ‘smell of the place’, as I describe in my upcoming book 'The Phoenix and the Unicorn' (out March 2020).


The smell of Fontainebleau in the spring 

That ‘smell’ refers to the late Sumantra Ghoshal, an incredibly gifted Professor of Strategic and International Management at the London Business School, who sadly passed away way too early, at the age of 55 in 2004. He was one of the top thinkers of his time, and he will always be remembered for his legendary speech at the World Economic Forum (WEF) in Davos. Ghoshal was born in Calcutta, the capital of India’s West Bengal state, an incredibly vibrant and dense Indian megacity. He had also spent years teaching at INSEAD, the French business school that is situated in Fontainebleau, a splendid, densely forested area South of Paris. 

Today In: Leadership

In his famous WEF talk, Ghoshal compares the fatigue of downtown Calcutta in the summertime, with the freshness of the Fontainebleau forests in springtime. He brilliantly describes how each environment causes a very different energy and distinct type of behavior. If you’ve never seen his talk, just Google “The Smell of the Place”, and watch the 8-minute video right now. Unfortunately, the quality of the video comes from a pre-Youtube era, but its content is still very valid today.

One small excerpt: “Go to the forest in Fontainebleau with the firm desire to have a leisurely walk, and you simply can’t. The moment you enter the forest, there is something about the crispness of the air, about the smell of the trees in spring, you want to jog or catch a branch or DO something… Most companies, particularly large companies, have created downtown Calcutta in summer inside themselves and then they complain.”