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Southern California Job Market : Challenges Of The Working Life : On The Job : Life In A New Corporate Culture

September 18, 1988|JESUS SANCHEZ | Times Staff Writer

The sounds of crashing bowling balls and pins reverberate just as loudly as they ever have at Deer Creek Lanes in Rancho Cucamonga. But beneath the surface, a dramatic change has taken place.

Two years ago, the owner of Deer Creek Lanes and 140 other bowling centers--Chicago-based Brunswick Corp.--underwent a reorganization that gave bowling center managers the freedom to run their businesses as they saw fit. A year later, the managers at Deer Creek Lanes took part in an effort to increase teamwork and communication among the center's 40 employees.

"Employees are a lot more productive because they're made to feel like they belong," said Deer Creek General Manager Tom Burke, who relishes the changes and his increased freedom. "It was a big change," he said, "no doubt about it."

What the employees at Deer Creek Lanes have seen in the past two years is a change in the values, goals and personality of their corporation--a change in corporate culture. They are far from alone as mergers and efforts to cut costs and boost productivity have triggered changes in the nature of corporations nationwide.

A change in corporate personality can influence careers and even mental health. A change in culture can be for the better--empowering employees with new freedom--or a wrenching experience leaving employees alienated. Adapting to these changes is possible, but it is not always easy.

And it appears employees will have to brace themselves for more change. "We regard the '90s as the restructuring of America," said Andrew K. Sherwood, chairman of Goodrich & Sherwood, a New York human resources consulting firm. "This is only the initial stage. Mergers and acquisitions and changes in the business climate are changing corporate culture tremendously."

As part of those changes, corporations have streamlined their bureaucracies in an attempt to react more quickly to changes in their industry and to competitors. Companies that once sagged under the weight of layers of management--IBM, Montgomery Ward, AT&T, Bank of America--have adopted a new lean-and-mean posture that has upset their staid nature.

"Middle managers who used to go to a big company like Mobil could be pretty much assured that they could spend their entire careers there if they wanted to," said Susan Sanderson, who has studied the impact of mergers and acquisition on middle managers for the Conference Board. "It's not clear if they can still do that."

The notion usually travels fast. "The word gets out that in order to survive, you must perform," said Sherwood, of Goodrich & Sherwood. As a result, slow-moving bureaucrats begin to fall by the wayside. "Then you got a bunch of sharks."

Corporate culture, for the most part, is a very elusive animal to grasp and identify. "It is a way of thinking, it is a process. It is the dreams and anxiety of the company," said Ian Mitroff, a professor of corporate strategic planning at USC. "It's invisible to the people there. It's a lot of the unwritten rules."

A negative environment, Mitroff said, is beset with an "unhealthy narcissism. . . . There is a real denial. People have their heads lopped off if they bring bad news."

On the other hand, a positive work environment "empowers people," Mitroff said. It involves people in the job. "If you want quality products," Mitroff said, "employees have to be more involved. That goes back to culture."

Many corporations in recent years have adopted mission statements to communicate their philosophy and goals. But these indicators of corporate thinking can be misleading. "Many times mission statements are nothing more than New Year's resolutions," said Robert Lefton, president of Psychological Associates, a St. Louis management consulting firm. "People don't believe them."

Trying to change a company's personality and values can be a very tough and traumatic experience.

Katherine Diaz, a former public affairs employee at the company that used to bottle Coca-Cola in Los Angeles, recalls the homey environment at the firm's downtown Los Angeles headquarters. A folksy newsletter told of company events and happenings. Free soda fountains were located all over the building. "We had a very, very family type of environment. You felt you were part of a team, part of a family," said Diaz.

But the bottling company was taken over and subsequently sold again to Coca-Cola Enterprises. The company newsletter and soda fountains soon disappeared. "All they cared about were numbers," Diaz said. "They were less concerned about the people who were producing the numbers.

"Maybe they streamlined it and maybe they made it more efficient," said Diaz, who is now a public relations consultant, "but it just wasn't a very pleasant thing to go through."

Workers whose companies have been taken over should learn as much about their new bosses as possible, say management consultants.

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