Shortcut to understanding your corporate culture : the company conference

The annual company conference. Or bi-annual if your company has started to struggle. I’ve been to a few in my time. I know that I should feel grateful and lucky to have had the opportunity. It’s a big expense for a corporate to take on especially in a world of ever diminishing returns. Only the privileged few of some random grade and above are ever invited. As well as getting face to face updates of important issues and strategies to do with your business it is also, of course, a chance to let your hair down at the companies expense. Always these events are nothing but well intentioned.

And yet every time I get invited, two things happen. Firstly I get a morbid apprehension about going. Maybe it stems from the part of me that believes it’s a frivolous “nice to do” and there a far more deserving people who slog their guts out on a daily basis, that would get far more out of that sort of company generosity than I do – a healthy dosage of “imposter syndrome” maybe. Or perhaps it’s fear, recognising that I genuinely don’t want to participate in the forced fraternisation that invariably unfolds, all in the name of company spirit, with people you normally would cross the road to avoid. Either way I simply don’t like them. Finally, and perhaps more interestingly, there is always something inherent in the set up, that gives a huge clue to the true nature of the company, and more often than not its deeply disturbing.

A fine example of this is my most recent inaugural company conference experience in my new role. I am still learning about the do’s and don’ts of this particular organisation, and the conference experience has provided a fascinating insight into the nest of vipers that is the company culture. I started my planning for the event early – fail to plan, plan to fail and all that. As soon as the dates were issued I arranged my travel – a sure fire way of saving the company money – I even arranged to share a car from the airport for the 90 minute drive to the coastal luxury resort earmarked for the 2 day long festivities. Prudence was my middle name. Feeling pleased with myself – I’d even managed to arrange it so I could do half a days work in my home location before hopping on the short haul flight to arrive in time for the pre do evening welcoming reception.

And then came the first of the many friendly company conference branded emails, from the unnamed small army of event planners and comms professionals popping out of the woodwork to help organise. I soon recognised a trend after 2 or 3 of these emails, and that was that each one dropped in that friendly word “mandated” at some point. This first one was the “mandated” travel from the airport in the company provided special buses. Of course all “mandated” bus departures were leaving much earlier than my flights arrival time. I valiantly argued by email that the additional flight fees to change times would outweigh any bus related savings but naturally found upon pushing into this further not only was this a cost saving initiative, but also to get us there for the fun outdoor afternoon activity the day before. No point in pushing water uphill so the change was made. The unadulterated glee when a week later the notification of my outdoor activity, chosen for me by the event planning team, of lawn green bowling landed in my inbox, was a sight to behold.

Buoyed with expectancy I keenly boarded my earlier plane and upon landing looked for the placard waving bus driver in the arrivals hall. And then looked again. And again. Eventually asking other bus companies whether they’d seen mine, which was met with a mini conference of its own, followed by an offer of an extra cheap rate to ferry me there themselves. Undeterred I phoned event planning central, only to be informed that my plane must have landed at the wrong terminal. Obviously the mountain refused to move, so off I hoped on an internal transfer to a far flung alternate part of the airport.

The lucky seven of us eventually boarded the mini bus and then the fun started. We had travelled past the airport entrance traffic lights and up onto the motorway ramp when we stopped dead. Along with everyone else. One of those split second decisions where you know fate has intervened. If we had dawdled for two minutes more we would have avoided it as surely as everyone behind us was, by shooting down the side of the ramp. The driver tried reversing and gave up and so for the next two hours we surveyed the same 500m if concrete. Worse still, when we finally limped off the motorway, rather than our driver going with the flow and heading for the next motorway once the road closure was avoided, he decided to take us in completely the wrong direction. After 4 hours of bus travel, and further away from the sea than when we started, we finally persuaded him to stop at a KFC. Needless to say when we finally rolled into the resort 5 and a half hours after leaving the airport we were not a happy bunch. And yes I would have arrived earlier with my original plan.

The choreographed and mandated activities continued to be a theme of the three day event. Clearly trust had previously been stretched and perhaps abused but this was a relatively stark reaction to that, especially given how many hands went up when the MD asked “how many of you are new”. Hotel bars were strictly closed at ridiculously early hours. Any creative thinking was outsourced to external experts – “presumably not available internally” – and so the tone for my new corporate home was set.

Not all cultures and therefore company conferences are the same of course. I have been involved in the outright flamboyant, the disarmingly humble and the downright party hard type in the past, but very few if any have really got the balance spot on for me – except perhaps my very first company conference. But a company conference virgin is an easily impressed creature.

If you are lucky enough to be invited and you like this sort of thing then fill your boots. But keep your eyes and ears open and you will undoubtedly learn something that perhaps you didn’t know, that will help you work out a few tricks to getting on or getting stuff done in the environment that you are in, or perhaps open your mind to highlighting that it’s an environment you don’t want to be in.

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