Leadership as the “back up band”!


Every once in a while we get things twisted around backward and the world begins to feel odd. Like waking up with your pyjama bottoms twisted half-way round. Or worse yet, someone gives you a “wedgie” (at least that’s what we called it in high school in the 60′s – ask your parents if you haven’t got a clue).

Over the past few decades this thing called leadership has been twisted around to the point where not only does it not feel very good, it just plain doesn’t work very well!  We have such common phrases as “charismatic leadership”, “superstar leaders”, “rockstar leaders”, “Uber-leadership”, as well as courses and programs for leadership development, executive leadership training and even MBA classes in leadership. The New York Times best seller list is full of books about leadership.

This focus on leaders and leadership as front and center has even morphed into how we think about the leadership team. The concept of a team of superstars and the executive super-team is everywhere. CEOs are asking the global recruiting companies to find them executive candidates with “great leadership skills” and they have responded with a myriad of assessments and psychological profiles to identify such candidates.

Yet the truth is, there is no study that I have run across that conclusively points to the fact that strong, charismatic, rockstar leadership equates with sustainable business performance or employee engagement, or an agile corporate culture. And if you are anywhere below the executive level, you find that something just doesn’t feel right about the whole thing. And worse yet, ask any citizen or person in business what’s wrong with companies and countries today and you tend to hear the same thing: “lack of leadership”.

If it sounds like I am knocking “leadership”, I’m not.  I have studied leaders and leadership my whole business life.  I have been in the role of leader several times, often as CEO or founder.

What I would like you to think about is another point of view.  Leadership as the “back Backup bandup band”.  When I went to rock concerts in college in the 60′s the back up band came on first to get the audience warmed up and engaged for the headline acts to follow.  Some did such a great job that the headline acts had an easy gig.  Others did so poorly that the big name acts had to struggle to win back the crowd. In every case it came down to how well the back up band engaged with the audience, not how perfectly they played.

Great leadership is more about supporting, engaging, coaching and setting the right environment than having all the answers or the perfect vision or strategy.  By the way, news flash, in this day and age of rapid change and constant disruption of traditional business models, there is no such thing as a “perfect” strategy.  Strategy (what we do to win customers, beat competitors and create sustainability) today must be more agile than Fred Astaire and Ginger Rodgers (really telling my age now) and able to revise plans and initiate new solutions quickly.  Unless the entire organisation, right down to the night watchman, is engaged and unless information flows quickly up, down and across the organisation, adaptive responses and innovative change gets mired in protocol, meetings, hierarchies, and more meetings.

Leaders in their role as the “back up band” support the real superstars, those employees close to the real work, who listen to the customer, who spot trends and changing patterns, who develop new ways of streamlining processes, reducing waste, speeding up the supply chain. All great innovations and advances tend to come from those nearer the customer or closest to the real work processes. Leadership is there to support them through open listening, suggestions, investments, coaching.  Super star leaders probe and second guess, effective “behind the scenes” leaders coach, suggest, encourage.

In an organisation of “superstar” leadership, employees say “they are great”! In an organisation with leaders as the back-up band, employees say “we are great”!

It just feels better that way.  And it works better as well.

John R. Childress

Author of LEVERAGE: The CEO’s Guide to Corporate Culture, and FASTBREAK: The CEO’s Guide to Strategy Execution, available from Amazon in paperback and eBook formats.

See the review of LEVERAGE in The Economist (January 9, 2014.

John also writes thriller novels:  novels.johnrchildress.com

Posted in leadership, corporate culture, strategy execution, Personal Development, consulting, Human Psychology, Organization Behavior, John R Childress | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

What’s Wrong With Culture Audits? Plenty . . .


Corporate culture is a hot topic!  It is discussed in boardrooms, MBA classrooms, blogging pages and even House of Parliament treasury committee hearings concerning the Libor rate fixing scandal.

It’s also an important topic since numerous studies have pretty well convinced the business world that culture impacts performance and a culture that aligns with the business requirements and fully engages employees can lead to dramatic success.

Thezappos sales disruptive-innovation culture at Apple, the employee-engagement culture at Google, the customer-service culture at Zappos, all provide tangible, bottom-line examples that “culture matters”. By making culture a strategic asset and designing the culture from the start, Zappos.com., a start-up on-line shoe retailer based in Las Vegas, Nevada  grew from zero to $1Billion in just 10 years.

Google receives 2.5 million applications for employment every year (6.849 per day).

Culture matters!

Time for a Culture Audit:

When CEO’s and senior executives begin to ask the following types of questions, they usually start thinking about conducting a culture survey:

  • What are the strengths and weaknesses of our culture?
  • How does our culture support or hinder business performance?
  • We have a new strategy, is the culture right to help us deliver?
  • Could our culture be a “hidden risk” to our business?

Important questions, especially now that the global economy is beginning to sputter back to life and companies are shifting from cost containment to active growth.

So, time for a Culture Audit.  Time to get a clear understanding of your current culture, and maybe even determine the elements of a “preferred” culture. Time for the organisational psychologists and culture consultants to come in.

And this is where the wheels start to come off for me!

wheels off

Did you know that there are over 70+ different culture audits available? Many developed by academics, psychologists and statisticians. Some developed by culture consultants. Although corporate culture has been intently studied for the past 50 years, there are still an enormous number of different culture surveys and audits. Even the experts can’t agree on how to measure it. And most culture consultants don’t really understand the full business ramifications of corporate culture; how it’s formed in the first place, what are the real levers for change, why culture is mostly invisible to senior executives, what’s the most effective culture change approach? But they all have their “proven” approaches.

Imagine you decide to buy a new car, but are presented with 70 different makes and carsmodels, all marketed as high quality, affordable, effective transportation. Deciding on which culture survey to use is like deciding which car to buy.  You need to understand two things very clearly: your needs, and the capabilities of the car.

Understanding Your Needs:

The first question to be answered is, why do you think you need a culture audit?  What tells you there’s a culture problem? And if it’s just for curiosity, I caution against it since conducting a culture audit and not doing anything with it tends to alienate employees.

But, let’s say you have one or more of the following clues that your culture could be a significant business issue:

    • Your company is under-performing its peer group on key metrics.
    • Executives and employees are starting to leave and going to your competitors.
    • In exit interviews you here things like, “I can’t work in this environment; I get no feedback on how I’m doing and no opportunities for development”.
    • The senior team is constantly fighting over resources and budgets and VPs tend to openly criticize each other.
    • Executive Assistants come and go, complaining of being treated like second class citizens.
    • Accident rates are above the norm.
    • Executing on the strategy is like pulling teeth, with numerous project overruns and missed deadlines.
    • The parking lot empties in a mad stampede at 4:59 pm sharp.
    • Innovation and new ideas seem to have dried up.

Or maybe you have developed a new product line and want to be certain the company has the agility and readiness to make it successful.

Okay, you have some good reasons to better understand your corporate culture. Which culture audit to choose? Which one is right for your needs?

Understanding Culture Audits

A culture audit is basically a questionnaire where employees evaluate each question on a scale, often from 1 to 6 or from 1 to 10.  Some even use a 100 point scale.  Each question is (theoretically) designed to describe some important aspect of business culture, and questions are often grouped into categories.  For example, one popular assessment has 13 categories (Fun, Professionalism, Communication, Participation, Organisation Structure, Conflict Management, Decision Making, Innovation, Individual Performance, Human Resource Management, Leadership, Goal Orientation, Customer Focus) with numerous questions in each category, each scored on a 100 point scale.  Employees answer the questions, sometimes twice, once on the “current culture”, and the second time on what they think the “preferred culture” should be.

What comes out is a combined set of averages for the whole company (or broken down by levels or by functions, etc.) that are then displayed in a visual or graphical manner, showing your company scores for each category.  Some culture assessment firms have enough normative data to show how you compare with the average of your peer group companies.

With multiple variations on the same theme, that’s pretty much how all culture surveys work.  Much like all cars tend to have 4 wheels, transmission, engine, exhaust, chassis with the differences being mostly in the styling, capabilities and accessories. Culture assessments may look different, but they all tend to work the same way.

And on face value, that sounds pretty reasonable.  Let the experts evaluate your culture using their “validated” model and give you a detailed report on the strengths and weaknesses of your corporate culture.

Not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted.  ~Albert Einstein

And that’s exactly the reason so many senior executives (apart from HR) tend to roll their eyes when someone mentions doing a company-wide culture survey.  It might be logical and professional, but does it really measure our culture? And that’s the fundamental issue.

What’s Wrong with Culture Audits?

After consulting and advising in the area of senior team dynamics, performance improvement, strategy execution and culture change for over 30 years, I have a serious problem with the majority of corporate culture surveys and assessments. In fact, to me there are multiple flaws that make then pretty much useless exercises and a waste of time and money.

  • First, the scores are actually averages. But employees or employee groups are not equal and lumping then into averages tends to mask the real insights.  Does one set of employees have a greater impact on the culture than another?  We don’t know when  dealing with averages.
  • Second, it is assumed that each of the different culture categories have the same “weighting” or impact on the culture. Even the most basic business models of risk use a % weighting system to show that some elements of the business model may carry more risk than others.  Not so with culture assessments.
  • Third, there is no such thing as an overall company culture! Most companies are actually a collection of subcultures (coherent groups with common behaviours and ways of working).  There are no culture surveys on the market I know of that take into account subcultures and show you how they behave and how they impact performance.
  • Fourth, most culture audits deal with an idealised version of “employee values” under the mistaken belief that culture is a product of “shared employee values”.  Within today’s multicultural workforce, and in global organisations, different national cultures often view the same “value” (respect or accountability or open communications) very differently.  And most companies don’t take the time to define their corporate values in clear behaviours and actions. There are often as many different interpretations of a company value as there are employees.
  • Fifth, asking employees what their preferred culture should be like more often than not results in human engagement factors, but not strategic or competitive factors. A great place to work with poor business behaviours is a design to fail, just as a great strategy with a poor culture is doomed.
  • Sixth (and in my mind a critical flaw), most culture surveys tend to ignore the business strategy and marketplace dynamics that are impacting on the company and employees. If disruptive technology is rapidly changing the marketplace, what culture is required?  If there has been a recent merger or acquisition, what culture gives the best chance of realizing improved business value.
  • Seventh, how do you know the elements of the culture survey are really measuring YOUR corporate culture, and not some idealised representation.  For example, if you administered four different culture surveys to your company would any of them give the same results?  Adopting a generic business strategy is not a winning competitive approach.  Equally, acting on a generic culture survey may lead you in entirely the wrong direction.

A more useful approach:

Corporate culture is defined as the “accepted and frequent set of work behaviours” used by groups of employees to deal with each other, interact with customers, and solve business and work issues. People have personal values, organisations have accepted habitual behaviours and ways of working.

Since behaviours drive results and corporate culture is the collective set of behaviours used frequently by employees, then understanding YOUR specific culture requires understanding the frequent behaviours inside your company that drive performance and employee engagement.

Here is the way we help companies understand their corporate culture.  First we get the top two levels of the organisation into a workshop (senior team and direct reports), divide them into two random groups, and ask Group A to write down all the behaviours that caused the company to have a record year of results.  We then ask Group B to write down all the behaviours that occurred in the company that created a complete failure to meet year-end objectives.

In less than an hour both groups have a very specific list of real behaviours that occur inside their company.  And they are not just mirror images of each other, these are real observable behaviours seen among the senior team during meetings, within and between departments, in the stores with customers or on the manufacturing floor.

Next we ask the team to articulate their competitive strategy and strategic objectives for the year (in most cases these are already available).  We then ask groups A and B to define the behaviours that would ensure the company reaches (or exceeds) those specific objectives.  Not generic behaviours, but specific work related behaviours attached to each strategic objective.  For example, launching a new product line will require some different behaviours than reducing manufacturing costs or waste. Being specific is the key.

Once we have a robust list of behaviours attached to strategic and business success, it easily begs the important question; “Do we have these behaviours now? To what degree? Where are they most prevalent?  Which ones are not very often seen in this company? Why not? Which subcultures have the healthiest set of behaviours?”

Now it becomes relatively easy to design a customised assessment (survey) to determine the degree to which these important behaviours for business success are regularly seen in your company.  Your own specific culture audit!

The results that come back are insightful, relevant, and specific for your company.  And leadership is fully engaged and ready to engage with the information since they created the process, not some outside professor, psychologist or consultant.

Done properly, a custom developed culture audit of specific behaviours will provide you with a wealth of insights into how to make your corporate culture a competitive advantage and a great place to work!

Culture change is the replacement of one set of “accepted and frequent behaviours” for another.

John R. Childress

Author of LEVERAGE: The CEO’s Guide to Corporate Culture, and FASTBREAK: The CEO’s Guide to Strategy Execution, available from Amazon in paperback and eBook formats.

See the review of LEVERAGE in The Economist (January 9, 2014.

John also writes thriller novels:  novels.johnrchildress.com

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Behaviours Build Strong Brands and Aligned Cultures

It is easy for someone to copy your business strategy, but they can’t copy your culture.

I was recently sent this infographic that describes some of the unique behaviours and activities that have helped companies build strong brands and iconic corporate cultures.  There is a strong relationship between culture and brand, especially when the two are aligned.

One of the quickest ways to destroy brand value, no matter how large your marketing and PR budget, is to let the culture drift away from the “brand promise” in such a way that employees no longer believe in the brand or the company.  Keep the two aligned and great things do happen!

Thanks to Sherlyn Popper from Masters-in-marketing.org for letting me use this.

culture behaviours

John R. Childress

Author of LEVERAGE: The CEO’s Guide to Corporate Culture, and FASTBREAK: The CEO’s Guide to Strategy Execution, available from Amazon in paperback and eBook formats.

See the review of LEVERAGE in The Economist (January 9, 2014.

John also writes thriller novels:  novels.johnrchildress.com


Posted in consulting, corporate culture, John R Childress, leadership, Organization Behavior, strategy execution | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

The Reality of Corporate Culture and “Flat World” Thinking

“The church says the earth is flat; but I have seen its shadow on the moon, and I have more confidence even in a shadow than in the church.” ― Ferdinand Magellan

Several hundred years ago, most people believed the world was flat and somewhere, out flat-earth-societythere, was the dangerous edge.  This was a commonly held belief and as a result influenced many actions among those who made their living on the sea.  Most trade and commerce routes kept in sight of land.  Large heavy anchors were required in case a ship needed to stop itself from being pulled over the edge. Most long trading routes were overland.

However, when the general understanding of the earth as a sphere fully took hold, behaviours also changed.  Trade routes across the oceans were opened up, spawning new industries.  Ship building blossomed.  Conquest of other lands to enrich your empire became easier. The “global economy” was born.

Those who today continue to believe the world is flat are a tiny minority and generally considered  grossly misinformed at best, and mostly just plain “wacko”.

Yet in the world of organization behaviour and business performance, there are still those who steadfastly believe corporate culture is about “shared values” and that “values” define an organization’s culture.  Unfortunately, they are the business equivalent of “flat earthers”.

Culture is  behaviours, not values

People have values, corporations have behaviours.

Values are abstract concepts of what is important and worthwhile. Flying the national flag on a holiday is a behaviour that (in most cases) reflects the value of patriotism. Stating openly in a meeting that your project is behind schedule by three weeks is a behaviour that reflects the value of ‘accountability’ and ‘open, honest communication.’

But these are behaviours, not values. We can’t see, touch, nor can we manage values. And depending upon your upbringing and culture, the value of ‘respect for others’ may look very different to a Japanese business person than one from the US. Value statements can be interpreted in many ways. Behaviours are much more binary and easy to observe.

I have asked dozens of CEOs and senior executives over my 35 years of work on leadership, culture change, performance improvement and business transformation if they have ever seen a value: “Can you show me a value?”  They shake their heads in mild chagrin. I’ve also asked to see reports for Values KPIs and program management plans for corporate values. Nothing!

The “Value of Values” Test

 Life is a cruel teacher. She gives the test first and the lesson afterwards!

When I give speeches to senior teams or audiences of senior executives, I almost always do this simple test with the group. I first ask: “How many of you believe that values and value statements are important in running an effective organisation?” All the hands shoot up. I then ask them: “How many of you work for an organisation that has published their values or value statements?” 90+% of the hands again go up. Then I ask them all to pull out a piece of blank paper, grab a pen or pencil, and write down the exact values or value statements of their company. As you can imagine, there is a gasp and then a very awkward silence with much fumbling around and shifting in the chairs.

The results? Over the past 35 years the average has been that less than 50% of the don_draper_confused_600audience can actually recall and accurately write down their company values or value statements. And these are the senior executives! I did this recently with a financial services organisation in London, which had just 4 simple values. Only one of the 8 senior executives in the room got them all correct!

Why, if values are espoused by consultants and psychologists as so important to running effective enterprises, are so few senior executives able to write them down, much less live them day-to-day? Simple, values aren’t real, nor are they visible, and as this example shows, not very important to how leadership thinks about its business! Slide17

Enron had it’s shared corporate values chiselled into the granite on the side of its Houston headquarters and proudly displayed in their annual reports. I guess 4 were just too many to remember!

However, ask a team of senior executives to write down the common behaviours that occur in their company that get in the way of innovation, strategy delivery, employee engagement and other important business issues and they can list them perfectly!

Realising that corporate culture is really about accepted and frequent behaviours, and not values, is a profound insight that opens up highly productive approaches to reshaping culture and bringing culture into alignment with the business purpose and strategy. With this one insight we can now develop effective culture change approaches and culture realignment processes that quickly get results.

The “Values believers” say it takes 3-5 years to change a culture (probably never if the senior executives can’t even write down the values). A behaviour based approach, using the power of internal social networks (subcultures), behaviour change through peer pressure and the human need to “fit in”, as well as “active leadership” and revised policies and business processes to encourage new behaviours, makes culture change far more sustainable as well as less invasive than the Values Roadshow Workshops that are so prevalent with culture change consultants.

If you use this definition of culture change, it will help you navigate successfully:

Culture change is the replacement of one set of “accepted and frequent behaviours” for another.

John R. Childress

Author of LEVERAGE: The CEO’s Guide to Corporate Culture, and FASTBREAK: The CEO’s Guide to Strategy Execution, available from Amazon in paperback and eBook formats.

See the review of LEVERAGE in The Economist (January 9, 2014.

John also writes thriller novels:  novels.johnrchildress.com

Posted in consulting, corporate culture, ecosystems, John R Childress, leadership, Organization Behavior, strategy execution, the business of business | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Banking’s Two Challenges . . . are Really One!

future of banking

Shallow men believe in luck or fate. Wise men believe in cause and effect.

It’s been six tumultuous years since the global economic meltdown of 2008 and we are finally glimpsing signs of a return to a growing economy.  Belt tightening, cost control, bail outs, bankruptcies and mortgage foreclosures are slowly giving way to optimism, job creation and stock market highs.

While the large global banks are today posting profits, at the same time they are still discovering incidents of fraud and wrong-doing that began years ago.  Monetary fines and settlements from money laundering, mortgage mis-selling, and rate fixing have, over the past 5 years alone, totalled more than $90 billion.  And it’s not over yet.

Risk Mitigation

Risk comes from not knowing what you’re doing.  ~Warren Buffett

Risk also comes from not knowing who is doing what!

It’s no surprise then that almost every global banking institution lists “mitigating risk” as one of their key strategic imperatives for 2014.

Citibank has declared a top-down initiative of Zero Tolerance. A clear signal that unethical and inappropriately risky behaviour will not be tolerated.  Barclays new Chief Executive, Anthony Jenkins, brought in to replace risk and profit focused Bob Diamond, has published a new set of core values, The Barclays Way, and launched a top to bottom communications and training program to “instill the new values”.  Royal Bank of Scotland, once the home of big spending Fred Goodwin and now 80% owned by British taxpayers as a result of a massive bailout, has issued a new Code of Conduct and a decision-making template called the Yes Check, designed to help employees avoid undue risk.

Risk mitigation is a critical strategic imperative for banks. And if the banks don’t do it themselves, the government and financial regulators will, and excessive regulation often stifles business expansion and social progress.

Diversity and Inclusion

A second significant topic  also heads the list of strategic imperatives for big banking. The issue of gender diversity and inclusion is now a full-fledged movement, backed not only by research and activist groups, but also governments.

A UK Government sponsored task force launched in 2011 and chaired by Lord Davies of Abersoch put forth the goal that FTSE 100 Boards should be 25% women by 2015.  This is starting from less than 15%. And the impetus for such a radical change? Besides being the “right thing to do” from a perspective of the makeup of modern society, there is a growing body of evidence that companies with significantly diverse boards perform better than all male boards.

In 2013 a second UK Women on Boards report celebrated significant progress, citing a statistic of just under 20% and declaring the goal of 25 by 2015 well in sight. But diversity and inclusion is not about a single quota number. It is really about bringing the value of diversity and inclusion into all levels of business management.  And here the statistics remain little changed: less than 3% of CEOs are women, less than 6% of senior executives and 10% of directors are women.  Yet entry-level management classes are predominantly 60% women graduates.

We may have equality in education, but not in business. Women enter management in abundance, but few get to the upper levels.

So, two highly important strategic imperatives, risk mitigation and diversity, are front and centre for global banking. And in typical business fashion, they are being attacked as separate issues led by different functions.  HR tends to carry the torch for the women in business, diversity and inclusion issue, while the Governance and Compliance functions tend to own the risk mitigation initiatives.

Two Issues, One Cause

But look a little deeper into these two issues and you will find they are actually connected by a single cause.  Both are the result of the “current culture of banking”.  And the solutions to both reside not only in new policies, tightened regulation, or higher quotas, but in a fundamental change of corporate culture (behaviours).

bank cultures

The way people routinely behave with each other, with customers and suppliers, and how they go about dealing with daily work issues, defines a corporate culture.  Culture is not written values statements! Culture is habitual behaviours. And in the case of banking, certain behaviours, like skewed hiring profiles favouring men and bullying and foul language, are toxic towards diversity. Other current behaviours, like the cult of “profit heroes” and peer pressure to conform, are punitive towards speaking up against risky activities by colleagues and teammates.

Understanding that corporate culture (habitual behaviour) is at the root cause of both risk and diversity is a profound and useful insight. It means the leadership of banking can now understand the problem and orchestrate a solution in an integrated, cost-effective and efficient manner.

It’s the culture, *****! (to paraphrase the campaign slogan of US Presidential candidate Bill Clinton)

Warren Buffett on Corporate Culture

warren-buffettIn case you think this blog has too much of an organizational psychology or HR slant, read the words from one of Warren Buffett’s  Annual Reports:

As I’ve said in these memos for more than 25 years: “We can afford to lose money – even a lot of money. But we can’t afford to lose reputation – even a shred of reputation.”  We must continue to measure every act against not only what is legal but also what we would be happy to have written about on the front page of a national newspaper in an article written by an unfriendly but intelligent reporter. Sometimes your associates will say “Everybody else is doing it”.

This rationale is almost always a bad one if it is the main justification for a business action. It is totally unacceptable when evaluating a moral decision. Whenever somebody offers that phrase as a rationale, in effect they are saying that they can’t come up with a good reason. If anyone gives this explanation, tell them to try using it with a reporter or a judge and see how far it gets them. If you see anything whose propriety or legality causes you to hesitate, be sure to give me a call.  However, it’s very likely that if a given course of action evokes such hesitation, it’s too close to the line and should be abandoned. There’s plenty of money to be made in the center of the court. If it’s questionable whether some action is close to the line, just assume it is outside and forget it.

Somebody is doing something today at Berkshire that you and I would be unhappy about if we knew of it. That’s inevitable: We now employ more than 250,000 people and the chances of that number getting through the day without any bad behavior occurring is nil. But we can have a huge effect in minimizing such activities by jumping on anything immediately when there is the slightest odor of impropriety. Your attitude on such matters, expressed by behavior as well as words, will be the most important factor in how the culture of your business develops. Culture, more than rule books, determines how an organization behaves.

(Note: more to come on how to reshape the culture of banking in future blogs)

PS:  I am not a bank basher.  On the contrary, I believe a healthy financial services industry is one of the key elements to a healthy global economy and social progress.  But I am not alone in the cry that the culture of banking is broken and needs enlightened and courageous leadership to mend it.

John R. Childress

Author of LEVERAGE: The CEO’s Guide to Corporate Culture, and FASTBREAK: The CEO’s Guide to Strategy Execution, available from Amazon in paperback and eBook formats.

See the review of LEVERAGE in The Economist (January 9, 2014.

John also writes thriller novels:  novels.johnrchildress.com

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Black Toilet Paper? MBA Case Studies Gone Bonkers . . .


MBA Trend

“The things taught in schools and colleges are not an education, but the means of education. “– Ralph Waldo Emerson

I am a big fan of Professor Henry Mintzberg of McGill University.  Mintzberg is, in my mind, one of the few academics that understand just how managerial skills and more importantly, how leadership skills, are developed.

Mintzberg decided to break from the tradition of business academic research.  Instead of developing theories about management and then going out into business and testing them (often times finding just the data to prove a point), he went out and watched and studied what managers actually do all day long.  Then he based his conclusions and insights on these actual observations (The Nature of Managerial Work, 1973).  And what he found was striking.  Most managers don’t spend much time really moving the business forward and actually spend a great percentage of their time not managing. And he finds that traditional MBA programs don’t develop management skills (let alone leadership skills) at all (Managers, not MBAs).

To sum up his 40+ years of work observing managers at their jobs and especially his research into how to best develop management and leadership skills, he is noted for this rather profound insight:

“Basically my objection is that MBA programs claim to be creating managers and they are not. The MBA is really about business, which would be fine except that people leave these programs thinking they’ve been trained to do management. I poison
think every MBA should have a skull and crossbones stamped on their forehead and underneath should be written: “Warning: not prepared to manage”.

And to me case studies are the worst form of preparation for real management or leadership roles.  And here is a case in point.  I call it “Case studies gone bonkers”!

Black Toilet Paper?

Recently, INSEAD, one of the top ranked global graduate business schools, was awarded first prize for the best global case study, as awarded by ecch (European Case Clearing House). Here’s the press release:

INSEAD Wins Top Global Case Study Award

Marketing Case Study of Portugal’s Renova Black Toilet Paper is #1

A INSEAD video case study focusing on the marketing strategies of Portuguese paper company Renova has won the overall global award for the best case study.  Renova differentiated itself from its peers – some of whom are international paper companies such as Georgia Pacific – through innovation…and the creation of Renova Black toilet paper, launching the rolls from supermarket shelves into fashion shows and designer boutiques.

Am I the only one who has a problem with this?  It may be technically a great case study about product differentiation.  But really!  Is this what we want our managers and leaders of the future to focus on?  Creating “Black Toilet Paper” to make more money!

We have a world of social problems from lack of food and mass starvation in numerous countries, to a growing population of people in abject poverty in the US and other rich nations, to problems of pollution created by businesses themselves.  And we are asking our future leaders to learn about how to make more money by turning toilet paper into a fashion item?

Why not focus this raw, energetic young talent on solving real business problems, like sustainability, alternative non-polluting technologies, recycling that really works?  There are hundreds of better topics to study, learn about, glean sound business principles from that will help improve the world we all have to live in.  Black toilet paper as a fashion item is not one of them.

If this is what they promote as the best case study, then MBA programs are in worse shape than I had imagined. I can think of more socially beneficial and entrepreneurial ways to use the $100,000-$170,000 it costs for a top MBA degree these days!

John R. Childress

Author of LEVERAGE: The CEO’s Guide to Corporate Culture, and FASTBREAK: The CEO’s Guide to Strategy Execution, available from Amazon in paperback and eBook formats.

See the review of LEVERAGE in The Economist (January 9, 2014.

John also writes thriller novels:  novels.johnrchildress.com


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Before You Decide on a Culture Audit . . .

(This blog posting features excerpts from Chapter 12 in my recent book; LEVERAGE: The CEO’s Guide to Corporate Culture.)


“I can’t define pornography, but I know it when I see it.”  ~US Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart

Corporate culture is also difficult to define.  In fact there are hundreds of definitions of culture and over 70+ different corporate culture audits or surveys on the market to define your specific culture.  I wonder if they all measure the same thing?

NOT.  And that’s just one of the big problems with the current business interest in corporate culture.  There is no doubt that corporate culture (the habitual work behaviours employees use to deal with each other, customers and business issues) impacts performance.  That fact has been well established.  But what is not clear at all is HOW culture impacts performance and just which of the many components that make up corporate culture are the real performance drivers and which are secondary or even tertiary.


The many different corporate culture audits, surveys, assessments and profiles available give you a nice visual (and even statistically significant) snapshot, but is that really measuring your culture, or some academic or consultant’s model of culture?

“Not everything that can be measured counts, and not everything that counts can be measured.”  ~Albert Einstein

It’s a very important question since the decision to embark on a culture survey often leads to a “culture change program”.  And the reality is, most culture change programs fail.  The current estimate is about 80% failure to bring about the new culture desired.

“Would you schedule yourself for elective surgery with an 80% failure rate?”

Let’s Think This Through Together

Alone we can do so little; together we can do so much
~ Helen Keller

I am frequently asked by CEOs and business leaders for my suggestions on how to decide whether or not to conduct a culture audit. Here is the list I usually bring out and together we discuss the pros and cons.

  1. Be very clear on your purpose. What specifically about how your organization behaves do you want to know? Is there a recurring problem or issue that is behind your desire to learn more about your culture?
  2. Don’t assess your company culture just for the sake of curiosity. All assessments and surveys disrupt the ‘psyche’ and normal workflow of people and often raise more questions than answers.
  3. Start with the end result. What specifically do you want to achieve at the end of the process? What, besides information, do you need to have from a culture assessment?
  4. Match Instrument with the Purpose. The instrument and approach chosen should be determined by your purpose.
  5. Use the survey for information and ideas to fix a specific problem, not the culture. Employees understand fixing specific problems in order to improve how work gets done, but few of us at any level can get our mind around culture change.
  6. Culture or Complaints? In most organizations employees aren’t often asked to give input on the business and in many cases employees use a culture audit to air their grievances, pet issues and to complain. That’s not necessarily culture but more often a sign of morale problems, poor management or work constraints.
  7. Culture or Climate? Be clear you are getting a culture assessment and not a ‘climate’ assessment. Climate survey (how people feel at the  moment) is like the current weather report.  Culture on the other hand should be more like a geological survey to determine the real underpinnings of the organization.
  8. Trial Run. You and your senior team should take the survey first and get a debrief so you can fully understand the process, the methodology, the cultural interpretations and the quality of the consultants. If it doesn’t feel right (and you, the CEO, should ultimately make that call), then don’t continue. If the consulting firm balks at a senior team trial, ditch the firm and find another.

And my final words on Culture Assessments:

Remember, not every business issue, or culture issue for that matter, shows up on a culture profile.

John R Childress

Author of LEVERAGE: The CEO’s Guide to Corporate Culture, and FASTBREAK: The CEO’s Guide to Strategy Execution, available from Amazon in paperback and eBook formats.

See the review of LEVERAGE in The Economist (January 9, 2014.

John also writes thriller novels:  novels.johnrchildress.com

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