What Goldman Sachs can teach you about keeping a global business together

The bank's former European HR head explains that you can't expect to create an identikit culture across continents.

by Stephen Jones
Last Updated: 13 Feb 2019

Jo Geraghty spent six years heading up HR for Goldman Sachs in France and Switzerland. During this time she dealt with everything from the routine tax status of relocated workers, to the more emergency room task of repatriating a deceased body, yet her biggest challenge related to culture.

How, in an organisation of 36,000 people, spanning 30 countries, with all the siloes and regional idiosyncrasies that this brings, can you create a single, unified culture to bind it all together?

Her conclusion is, you can’t. It’s a lesson she says she learned the hard way.

"We were working on a pan-European restructuring project for Goldman. We had to change hearts, minds and working styles across seven different European offices to centralise operations around an office in Munich," explains Geraghty, who is now director of Culture Consultancy

The restructuring involved the relocation of a significant number of staff from all over Europe, which created a problem.

"The bank had all of these different offices that were never really aligned properly or used to working together," says Geraghty. "If we'd just mandated a style of working in one way, it wouldn't have connected with the employees. When people hit the stage where they think the culture doesn't fit their working style, they retreat and don't bother at all."

Geraghty’s solution was to establish a ‘golden thread’ of three overarching shared values and aims, then ask each office to explain what these meant to them and more importantly how they were going to make it fit within their individual cultures.

"We told them this is what we wanted the business to be and then gave them a mandate to make it meaningful for them. By setting the baseline values, it helped to bring to life the concept of change, but let them find their own way of meeting it."

Geraghty says that the fact that 85% of the staff ended up relocating shows that the process was largely a success.

Goldman's example provides a salient lesson for modern leaders, who by and large have accepted the idea that shaping a culture is a better way to get the behaviours you want than micromanagement: culture isn’t actually something you can control.

When a company gets big enough, and spans borders, there will inevitably be differences between offices, sometimes profound. This needn’t be a problem - in fact, embracing this diversity can be a strength - so long as the business is clear about its values and its purpose. And that, fortunately, is something a leader can control.

Further reading

If you want to find out more about the secrets of creating a consistent culture for your business, adapting to a foreign work culture and the importance of knowing where to start a cultural transformation, read these pieces:

Image credits: libertygal/getty images


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