The Importance of Cities Finding Their Cultural Match

Sometimes a person and a city just aren’t right for each other.
July 2017
The biggest cities, such as New York with "CSI:NY," have had TV shows, movies and novels built around them. (Jason DeCrow/AP)
By Aaron M. Renn  |  Columnist
Senior Fellow at the Manhattan Institute

Shortly after I started working at Andersen Consulting in 1992, The New York Times ran an article that dubbed our company a “culture of clones.” I chose to take that as a compliment. One of the biggest competitive advantages our firm had was a strong, unified global culture that enabled people from countries all over the world to come together seamlessly into teams to get a job done.

The importance of culture to corporate success is an article of faith in the business world, as is the criticality of recruiting talent that is compatible with a company’s particular culture. It’s always high up on the CEO’s agenda. But communities have cultures too, and cultural fit is a big deal -- one that’s often overlooked -- in attracting the talented people a place needs to grow and thrive.

I travel around to cities across the country and always come into contact with highly talented and motivated people. But there is often a huge divide between those who get traction and find success in a particular place and those who do not. I’ve been puzzled as to why some people who seem to be skilled and sharp are frustrated in these places while others seem to be thriving. Many of the frustrated people leave and find great success elsewhere. This is then cited as evidence of “brain drain.”

The truth is, sometimes there just isn’t a cultural fit between a person and a city. That doesn’t mean there’s anything wrong with either of them, just that they have incompatible styles. It’s the same as with companies, where a great person might not succeed at a great company simply because there’s not a cultural fit.

The challenge for people and for places is thus to find a cultural match. This is hard to do because culture is something that’s difficult to identify and articulate. There are some things I could tell you about the old Andersen Consulting culture, but I’m sure that there would be a huge number of things I’d miss. Like the air we breathe, the culture we live in is often invisible to us.

Economic development consultant Rod Stevens has suggested that communities could start unearthing and articulating their culture by creating “Dewar’s Profiles” of the kinds of people who are flourishing there. He took this idea from an old advertising campaign for Dewar’s scotch, in which the company ran full-page print ads featuring the creative, stylish, interesting people who enjoyed its product -- fashion designers, wildlife conservationists and even lion tamers.

In repurposing a whisky ad as an economic development tool, the idea is to build profiles of the kinds of people who are succeeding in a community -- high-impact entrepreneurs, for example, or community development people or civic leaders -- and try to figure out what the common traits and experiences are that made them such successes there.

This isn’t just about collecting a matrix of data points, though it could include that. It’s also to tell the story of those people. How did they get to be where they are? How did they end up in the community? What experiences shaped them and helped them to succeed?

By doing this, you start telling the story of what life is like in your community. The biggest cities, like Los Angeles and New York, have TV shows, movies and novels built around them, creating a narrative in the public mind about what the aspirational life and culture is like there. Other places have to tell their own stories.

That’s something we’ve long relied on journalists and other writers to do. I always try to get a feel for at least something of the culture of a place when I write about it, but there’s only so much an outsider can absorb in a short period of time. This is where a shrinking newspaper industry and the general concentration of media on the coasts are creating difficulties for so many communities. Many communities haven’t even had a single good history written about them, for example. The history of a place explains a lot about its culture and how it came to be that way.

A city also needs to have the courage to tell its own true and authentic story, not the one it imagines it should be telling to attract the same narrow demographic that everyone else is chasing. Communities are different, and the stories they need to tell are different.

The economist Richard Florida once wrote a book, Who’s Your City?, that gets at these stories. In it he notes that cities have personalities, and that one of the most important choices a person makes in life is picking a city to live in. You need to pick one that matches your own personality and preferences.

In a world in which we are unceasingly reminded about the diversity of our population, we need to have communities that feel confident being who they are. There’s not just one kind of place where people can live and flourish. Telling the genuine story of your community and its culture will help attract the people who will really thrive there and call it home.