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I have a problem with the above. And I have even more of a problem that the CEO of ING DIRECT retweeted it, which is how I heard of it. In fact, Peter Aceto, the CEO of ING DIRECT, even went so far as to retweet it as “Culture is what happens when the CEO leaves the room.”

The reason I take issue is because up until last week, I worked for ING DIRECT. I left on my own accord and on very good terms. I have nothing but good things to say about the company, and especially about its culture. As such, what Peter has said about the culture doesn’t really match up with my impression of it.

First, let me tell you what bothers me about Mr. Afshar’s original tweet. Saying that culture happens when the manager leaves the room means that the manager has nothing to do with the culture of a place, except in his or her absence. Further, saying that business growth is based on culture and people, not executives, implies that managers and executives are not people. So what are they then? While I am certain that the tweet very accurately describes work culture in many organizations, it is certainly not one that I aspire to.

Shortly before my last day at ING, I requested a meeting with Peter. I felt absolutely comfortable having this conversation with a man with whom I regularly met on the ice at our weekly hockey games. We joked often when we saw each other around the office and I was even able to convince him to help me prank a colleague one Saturday afternoon. And it didn’t even take that much convincing.

I recall meeting Peter early one morning in the restaurant of the hotel where we, along with a group of other hockey players from the company, were all staying for a weekend tournament near Montreal. Up before the rest of the guys, the two of us had breakfast together. As I sat across from our fearless leader, I smiled at his bedhead and mused at how here I was having breakfast with the CEO, when there was currently a contest going on back at the office where the winner would earn the right to do just that. Peter confessed to me that he wasn’t that comfortable with the idea. He said that while he of course understood the business need to have someone in place as the leader, he’s never  felt that comfortable being considered the CEO and the idea of people thinking of him as The Big Boss. In fact, a surefire way of getting his goat is to refer to Peter as “sir”.

The hierarchal structure at ING DIRECT is flat—well, as flat as it can be. There are titles, but they serve more as career development road markers, I would say. A few years back, we tried an experiment of removing everyone’s titles. This was reverted back at the request of team members who felt uncomfortable not knowing where they stood. The environment is such where anyone and everyone is encouraged to participate in the conversation. Ideas are welcomed from anywhere. There is a forum available for just that on the intranet, called The Orange Spark, where anyone in the company can submit an idea and have it voted on. Ideas (or “Sparks”) that rank high in votes are submitted for development.

I believe that culture is what emerges from the people in the room—all the people. To say that culture happens when certain people leave the room implies that those people are not important to the feel of a place. At ING DIRECT, every single person contributes to the culture, including the senior executive. They make it possible by setting the attitude and creating an environment where individuals feel comfortable expressing themselves in the workplace in an honest and transparent manner. OK, you might not find the CMO chucking stress balls at someone on a Friday afternoon, but he’ll be participating by letting everyone know that he’s fine with it—he encourages it.

I was a senior level manager at ING. When I left, my colleagues gave me a most embarrassing roast, where they talked about all the dastardly jokes I’d played and how the office would be a much safer place with me gone. Clearly, my work accomplishments would be a distant second in terms of my legacy. And I’m OK with this because I realize the contributions I made to the place by just being myself, which is ultimately how I feel great work culture is created—by fostering an environment where people are comfortable and feel supported enough to be the best versions of themselves, and together with all their colleagues, they make magic happen.

Originally posted October 28, 2012

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