When I first heard the theory that women marry men like their fathers, I figured it didn’t apply to me. My own father died when I was 2, and the man I married seemed nothing like my stepfather – at first. But the first time we traveled as a family on vacation, my husband turned into my father. He was a man on a mission – destination-bound – no pit stops, no lingering on the journey, no side trips to see the biggest ball of twine – just full speed ahead to vacation, “damn it.” Dad? I felt that familiar twinge of disappointment I used to feel as a child on family vacations as we hurtled towards our destination. Ding, ding, ding. Light bulb moment. As we matured in our marriage, I started to notice other similarities that I would have denied were there when we first met. I later learned about how we are drawn to the familiar – a theory that baffled me – specifically that we can be drawn to familiar dysfunctional behavior as well as familiar healthy behavior.


World's Largest Ball of Twine

World’s Largest Ball of Twine

Applying this Theory to Work

My musings are intended to be about leadership development not a storyline for daytime TV, so this conversation is about recognizing the patterns of seeking the familiar in new situations at work. For example, in a previous work life when I was stalled and stymied, I turned to a mentor to help me understand what I was experiencing. I described what was happening between me and this person several rungs up the ladder from me something like this: I can’t seem to please her. No matter how closely I listen to what she wants me to do, when I do it, it’s not quite right. But then she seems happy when she talks about the outcomes to other people. Ding, ding, ding. Light bulb moment. Mom? This new awareness of what I was experiencing helped me understand something about my own patterns of behavior and what I needed to do differently to create a healthier, happier situation for myself at work. Step One: Grow up.

Culture Check

I have some theories about understanding the culture of a team or leader before entering into that new relationship that are road-tested by me. So far, I haven’t come across other research or writings on this topic. I will admit that I haven’t tried that hard. I’ll get to it. One way I’ve learned to test a work situation to see if I was going down a path of marrying my father or working for my mother was to do a culture check of a team or organization. What are the people like? How do they treat each other? Are they authentic with one another? How do they support each other? It’s hard to assess these qualities before joining a team but there are a few tricks I use that help me choose a healthy culture for myself. I think they will work to help identify the culture of the organization which is typically formed around the values of the leader.

Ask around: What do people I trust say about the people and the team behind their backs? Social media connections help with this trick. If I don’t know anyone in the organization, I can almost always find someone who knows someone who knows someone.

Observe body language: What are the physical clues they reveal around other people? Phone interviews are a real barrier with this trick. Finding a way to be physically present is best, but sometimes there’s a youtube or other video that reveals something about how a team operates in physical proximity to one another.

Read their press: What do they focus on when they write about themselves? What do others write about them?

Find meeting minutes or agendas: What does their approach to day-to-day business and problem-solving say about their culture? This trick is easier with government organizations or in public companies.

Understand the vision of the leader: What is s/he aiming for? Who is helping?

Ask about successful and unsuccessful projects: How do they talk about accomplishments and failures?


Mother/Father Check

I realize that some people might be looking for a role model like their mother or father as a boss. While I have deep respect for my parents, I am looking for support from a different kind of leadership style at work. And once I recognized that working for an organization run by someone like my mother wasn’t conducive to my long-term development as a leader, I knew I had to learn how to find patterns of the familiar before committing to a new boss. When I joined a new organization, I did my best to assess the traits of the leader in a mother/father familiarity check. Here are some tricks I used to help me know as much about that person’s style as I could before I joined up.

Ask around: What do people I trust say about her behind her back?

Observe body language: What is she saying about herself in her posture? What physical postures are others around her taking?

Read their press: What do people who don’t know her say about her? How does she come across in print? How does she present herself in professional social media?

Find meeting minutes or agendas: Is there evidence of order? Chaos? Micro-managing?

Understand her vision: How does she articulate her vision? Does her vision include others?

Ask about successful and unsuccessful projects: How does she talk about accomplishments and failures? Is there evidence of introspection?

I don’t mean to imply that my parents or upbringing were so dysfunctional that I need to avoid anything like their parenting or my childhood in my work. What I mean to impress is that an awareness of affinity for a culture or person or being treated a certain way is a call to introspection about choices made about for whom and where to work.


Recommended Reading:

Triggers: Creating Behavior that Lasts-Becoming the Person you Want to Be/Marshall Goldsmith and Mark Reiter

This was one of my favorite books of 2015. It is full of practical, actionable advice based on research and experience – my favorite kind. It was full of light bulb moments. I bought several copies to use in coaching situations, for gifts, and to have for myself. I ended up giving all mine away and just now realize that just like the author predicted, I didn’t follow through on the Daily Questions exercise. Better get back to that.

Culture Change that Sticks/ Jon Katzenbach, Ilona Steffen, and Caroline Kronley

I read a lot of books and articles about culture, leadership, and change management. While this article is about culture change rather than identifying a culture in an organization, I think it provides helpful insights into healthy organizational culture. Of the many books and articles I’ve read on the topic, this one rises to the top.