A crucial factor to understand as you enter a new leadership role is your new organization's culture. Culture is what people and organizations care about. Misalignment to culture is one of the biggest reasons new leaders fail. Unfortunately, cultures are notoriously difficult to decipher.

As the CEO of a human capital consulting firm, author Emily Bermes has devoted her career to helping executives develop cultures that attract and retain the best talent. In her new book, Bombproof: A Field Proven Guide for the New-to-Role Executive, she explains how a lack of contextual knowledge about culture and early costly missteps can doom new leaders before they really have a chance to lead. But it doesn't have to be this way. With the right information, new executives can thrive.

The reality of culture is often obscured by people's intentions. "We've all been in places that have preached core values in public and have practiced opposing behaviors in private," Bermes writes. "As a new-to-role executive, you're likely to be spoon-fed the public image of the culture during your hiring and onboarding processes. You'll be shown the house when it's cleaned up for company, but you won't find out about the crazy uncle or the junk drawer until you join the family."

How to understand your company culture

Bermes attests that culture varies significantly from company to company--and even from team to team--which can lead to misguided assumptions. As humans, we tend to automatically operate as if the culture we're familiar with is the normal one. It's not. 

"The point here is that culture varies," Bermes says, "and you need to understand your organization's rules before you play its game. Culture is tricky to comprehend until you live it."

But don't panic. Bermes offers a specific set of questions to ask that will quickly reveal culture as you enter your new executive role:

1. What do the most successful leaders here care about most?

Identifying the answer to this question is perhaps the single fastest way to figure out what an organization's culture is like. If you know what gets rewarded by the people at the top, you'll know what drives the culture. For example, if you ask this question and the response you get is, "Well, our executives are usually pretty willing to take risks even when they go against industry norms," you can start to frame your new culture as innovative and progressive. On the other hand, if you hear something like, "Results get rewarded because what's most important here is winning," you'll know to expect more of a cutthroat culture.

Getting a well-rounded perspective on this is essential. The more people you pose this question to, the more likely you'll be to get an accurate picture of what your new cultural norms really are.

2. When people here fail, what's typically the cause?

This one can be a little bit more uncomfortable to ask, but it can lead to crucial insights. People usually fail for one of two reasons: either they fail to achieve business results or they fail to achieve results in a culturally acceptable way.

If, in your new role, you learn that most people fail for the first reason, it's likely that your organization values the bottom line above all else, and you can make your leadership decisions accordingly. In this case, the culture may not value building relationships or working collaboratively--those attributes may be considered weaknesses. On the other hand, if you learn that creating too much noise or making cultural missteps are primary reasons for failure (i.e., "he or she just didn't fit in"), you should be careful to study and adhere to your organization's ways of doing things for a time. Employees probably value their culture, and therefore you should move a tad more slowly and observe it carefully. 

3. What's an early mistake people in similar roles make, and how can I avoid it?

In this final question, you'll get more specific and gather some great historical context. Did the person before you burn out quickly? Did another leader rock the boat too much when stepping into a tightly knit team? Did a previous boss fail to communicate their preferences or fail to provide context for key decisions? How a company defines what a mistake is will reveal a lot about its culture. Learning about the specific situations that led to previous failures will help you decide how to assimilate--and how not to.

As you gather information by asking the questions above, Bermes stresses the importance of having frameworks for understanding the culture you're entering. Here are a few examples:

Competitive versus collaborative

In a competitive culture, individualistic high achievers get rewarded (sometimes at the cost of others). In a collaborative culture, people who work well in teams tend to thrive and good teams are rewarded together.

Humble versus self-promoting

In a humble culture, leaders are quick to distribute credit to others and are willing to admit mistakes. In a self-promoting culture, people focus on communicating their achievements and are quick to take credit when they can, sometimes for the work of others.

Traditional versus innovative

In a traditional culture, the people who play within the lines are admired. There's a resistance to change, even if it might achieve better results. In an innovative culture, ideas are rewarded. Employees are encouraged to try new things, even if the results aren't guaranteed.

People emphasis versus results emphasis

In organizations with a people emphasis, how things are done matters as much as, or even more than, what the outcomes are. These supportive cultures value personal growth and skill development. In a results-first organization, you'd be committing a cultural faux pas if you took an accommodating approach to a poor performer.

Assessing your culture correctly and assimilating to its norms are both crucial to succeeding in your new role--especially when you are still making an impression, building credibility, and strengthening your internal connections.