The receptionist and corporate culture

Who actually determines corporate culture? Does it start from the top and trickle down, or does it percolate up? 

That's what I was most interested in learning when I interviewed Carol Lennon for an article in this morning's Philadelphia Inquirer. Lennon was honored this week for her 50 years of service as the chief receptionist at Reed Smith, a Center City law firm with its headquarters in Pittsburgh. Only one other Reed Smith employee has worked longer, by about eight months, and that is in the company's Pittsburgh office. She has outlasted every lawyer in the Philadelphia office.

In Philadelphia, five managing partners have come and four have gone since Lennon started in 1961. So, if there is anyone who is a keeper of the culture, it would seem to be Carol Lennon, age somewhere north of 70. (She's not saying exactly how far north. "You can do the math," she said.)

Lennon and the partners are clear that the atmosphere in the office emanates from the top. "In the beginning, there is a little bit of change. Then everyone adapts and everyone is on the same road and the road is the firm's road," she said.

But, she said, people like her who train others do have an impact. (She trains receptionists in Philadelphia and across the firm.) "Everybody has their own personality," she said. "But there are some personalities that need a little more training. People's attitudes change as they get the feel of the office."  

Michael Czerpak, regional administrator for the firm, said he regularly relies on Lennon to be a sounding board. "I would say she has a lot of influence," he said. She wields it gently, he said. If she doesn't think something he suggests is a good idea, she makes her opinion known in a very subtle way. "She is always respectful and diplomatic," he said.

Reed Smith's culture, for example, always included recognition for service in five-year increments. But with 3,300 employees globally, that tradition was becoming unwieldy. The firm was considering eliminating it. "She had a strong opinion that we should keep it," he said. She stressed the importance of employee recognition on employee morale. Her opinion influenced his and his influenced Reed Smith's and so, the tradition is continuing.

Meanwhile, Lennon credits her longtime tenure to being discreet, never being negative, changing with the times, and keeping a professional attitude while leaving personal problems at home. Maybe, she said, she influences Reed Smith's corporate culture by example.

 "I sometimes think it can rub off."