Good Culture, Bad Culture

mae west

When I’m good, I’m very good, but when I’m bad, I’m better.  ~ Mae West

A culture isn’t good or bad in and of itself. Cultures develop by design or default based on numerous causal factors. When people say this company has a ‘bad’ culture or that company has a ‘good’ culture, they are usually describing the culture in relation to something else. Perhaps it is in relation to employee engagement or overall morale. This is the common connotation used when most people talk about good or bad cultures. But for the CEO and the success and sustainability of the company, another important comparison is between the culture and the business strategy.

Corporate culture either supports and empowers the strategy, or acts as a barrier. While strategy determines the direction the company takes across the competitive landscape, culture supplies both the fuel and the constraints. A culture well aligned with the strategy provides alignment between actions and objectives and offers little constraint. A culture aligned with the strategy can, in most cases, provide significant leverage for effective strategy execution. A culture out of alignment with the strategy adds multiple constraints and significantly slows down the process of strategy execution.

A strategy can only be effectively deployed if the culture supports it. And yet a strong culture will not make up for a weak strategy.

“They may be aligned, but they’re headed in the wrong direction!”

Southwest Airlines is a classic example of an effective, and designed, relationship between strategy and culture. Southwest turns a plane (the time elapsed from parking to unloading, loading, and pushing back) faster than any other airline, a product of a culture designed with the customer in mind, as well as the bottom line. They delight passengers and they make money, every quarter for the past 40 years! The combination of a high-performance, customer-focused culture in conjunction with a focused business strategy of point-to-point destinations and only one type of aircraft is simple, focused and profitable.

More often than not the difference between a ‘good’ culture and a ‘bad’ culture is visible in where executives spend their time, focus and energies. At the two extremes are internally (process) focused cultures and externally (customer) focused. Southwest is a good example of a customer focused culture. Most other big US airlines are more internally focused, with a myriad of rules and schemes to get more passenger dollars. Even the common phrase in the airline industry, ‘bums on seats’, says a great deal about the culture. Many dysfunctional cultures spend far more time on internal meetings and internal process than on listening to and satisfying the customer.

(this section was taken from my new book – LEVERAGE: The CEO’s Guide to Corporate Culture, due out on Amazon in paperback form in two weeks)

Tight Lines . . .

John R Childress

About johnrchildress

John Childress is a pioneer in the field of strategy execution, culture change, executive leadership and organization effectiveness, author of several books and numerous articles on leadership, an effective public speaker and workshop facilitator for Boards and senior executive teams. In 1978 John co-founded The Senn-Delaney Leadership Consulting Group, the first international consulting firm to focus exclusively on culture change, leadership development and senior team alignment. Between 1978 and 2000 he served as its President and CEO and guided the international expansion of the company. His work with senior leadership teams has included companies in crisis (GPU Nuclear – owner of the Three Mile Island Nuclear Plants following the accident), deregulated industries (natural gas pipelines, telecommunications and the breakup of The Bell Telephone Companies), mergers and acquisitions and classic business turnaround scenarios with global organizations from the Fortune 500 and FTSE 250 ranks. He has designed and conducted consulting engagements in the US, UK, Europe, Middle East, Africa, China and Asia. Currently John is an independent advisor to CEO’s, Boards, management teams and organisations on strategy execution, corporate culture, leadership team effectiveness, business performance and executive development. John was born in the Cascade Mountains of Oregon and eventually moved to Carmel Highlands, California during most of his business career. John is a Phi Beta Kappa scholar with a BA degree (Magna cum Laude) from the University of California, a Masters Degree from Harvard University and was a PhD candidate at the University of Hawaii before deciding on a career as a business entrepreneur in the mid-70s. In 1968-69 he attended the American University of Beirut and it was there that his interest in cultures, leadership and group dynamics began to take shape. John Childress resides in London and the south of France with his family and is an avid flyfisherman, with recent trips to Alaska, the Amazon River, Tierra del Fuego, and Kamchatka in the far east of Russia. He is a trustee for Young Virtuosi, a foundation to support talented young musicians. You can reach John at or
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