Choose Culture Over Industry When Deciding On Your Next Career Move

When it comes to finding the right career, harmony matters. During my early years in the Marine Corps, my square peg fit well enough into its square hole. As the edges of my personality and values changed over time, however, I no longer fit the Marine Corps’ square hole. Inevitably, we grew apart and the old cultural harmony between me and the Corps veered off track and ended with frustration.

A year later I finally pulled chocks from the Big Green Machine and moved west. As I cruised through Appalachia, across the plains, over the Sierras, and down into the Los Angeles basin, I rolled down my windows and felt a new air of opportunity. The Marine Corps, long gone from my rear view mirror, was no longer a match. As Oscar Wilde once said, “Be yourself, everyone else is already taken.”

After reaching California, I searched for a new career and one stop along the way was the Service Academy Career Conference. Though I didn’t find a job, I did learn a mighty lesson. At the panel discussion starring six service academy grads, I listened as one professional after another discussed their careers with prestigious law firms, Fortune 500 companies, and leading government agencies. Then I heard something fresh and new.

Younger than the rest, the last speaker — a type-A, West Point graduate in her late twenties — rose from her chair with a wide smile and announced, “I work for a toxic waste disposal company in the rural northwest and I absolutely love it!” The crowd roared as she lifted our mood and delivered us from boredom. Her speech was different and she was certainly different. I didn’t know anyone so passionate about toxic waste. Intrigued, I leaned in and hung on every word.

“I don’t have any particular passion for toxic waste,” she quipped, “I mean who the hell does? At my company, however, I do have a passion for the people I work with. Plus, I value the company’s culture, and just as important, the company values me. It’s a great fit and it all feels great!”

Bright with energy and free from ego, I admired her authenticity and I wanted to feel like that in my next career. The panel’s lawyer, banker, and special agent lacked her excitement, yet their industries and companies would sound so much cooler than toxic waste at my next dinner party. But that’s ego and not happiness; her smile, and their forced smiles, proved it so.

The West Point grad’s passion, of course, wasn’t because of her particular industry. She even denied being on a crusade to change the world and heal the environment. Nor was her passion connected to bragging about her career to others. What she discovered at that toxic waste company was her cultural fit — a round hole for her round peg. The result was harmony and happiness. Like a pair of comfortable shoes, what fits good also feels good.

After hearing this, the lightning bolts cracked and everything clicked for me. Whether it’s selling shoes at Zappos or disposing toxic waste, when it comes to happy employees, a company’s culture matters more than a company’s industry.

To drive home my point on the importance of culture over industry, consider the classic example of Apple versus Microsoft. Both are computer companies in the tech industry, yet they are advertised as cultural opposites. Watch the famous 1984 Apple ad and then watch this Microsoft ad from the same period and you’ll see Apple’s non-conformist and artistic culture versus Microsoft’s conventional and bottom-line culture. Both companies are wildly successful, yet your personality, tastes, and values will determine which company is the best fit for you.

If you’re a transitioning veteran, don’t stop with commercials. I encourage you to begin a cultural quest at the grassroots level. Study each company’s website, network with their employees, ask them why they work there. Go deep with your questions and always, always ask why.

In turn, your cultural frequency might resonate with their answers. When that occurs, I hope lightning strikes and you find harmony for your personality, style, and dreams. The result, and I speak from experience, is happiness.