Read The Economist review of my new book, LEVERAGE: The CEO’s Guide to Corporate Culture

The Economist cover

I spent the last 10 months at a small desk on the third floor of our house in London, sitting in front of a computer screen.  I was committed (and probably should have been committed) to writing a book about corporate culture, a concept that I have been studying and consulting on for the past 35 years.  It was time to synthesise all I had learned, or thought I had, into some coherent and cogent words, paragraphs, chapters and sections.  The result is a new business book for CEOs, business executives and owners, and government officials, LEVERAGE: The CEO’s Guide to Corporate Culture.

I knew I had the grit and gumption to write this book since I have written three other business books and four thriller novels over the past 17 years.  But this topic, Corporate Culture, is one of the most talked about yet least understood in today’s business world.  Every where you turn there is an article on corporate culture and everyone has an opinion as to what it is, why it’s important, and how to change it. I had some opinions, but I also had lots of hands-in experience with many global organizations and wanted to dig back into my 35 years of business consulting, put traditional ideas together in new ways and make new discoveries where previously I may have missed some real insights.

The byline on the cover of my book states my concise view on this subject:

Few concepts in business contain so many powerful truths, and at the same time so much crap, as corporate culture.

The book is now available on Amazon as a paperback, and also as an e-book (Kindle), but is it any good?  Does it provide real value and useful insights?  (Don’t ask the author, it’s always a big YES).  An independent review is what all authors want, and dread at the same time.

Here is a copy of The Economist’s review (also a link).  You decide:

From The Economist, Jan 9, 2014  Book Review Quarterly

Leverage: The CEO’s Guide to Corporate Culture. By John Childress. Principia Associates; 353 pages; $24. Buy from Amazon.com

IN JULY 2012 the treasury committee of Britain’s House of Commons summoned the boss of Barclays, Bob Diamond, to face the music. Barclays had been caught taking part in an industry-wide conspiracy to fix Libor, a benchmark interest rate, and the members of parliament wanted to know what was going on. Why had friendly high-street banks been transformed into financial casinos? And why did scandals keep piling upon scandals despite outrage from the public and promises to mend their ways from banking CEOs? Much of the answer, according to both Mr Diamond and his interrogators, lay in a phrase that was used more than 50 times during the hearing: “corporate culture”.

“Culture” is the mot du jour in the business world. Why do the wolves of Wall Street howl? Because Wall Street has a wolverine culture. Why do mergers fail? Because the cultures of the companies doing the merging often clash. Why do some companies succeed and others fail? Because they have either supportive or toxic cultures.

This is not just pap for lazy journalists. Some of the most successful bosses are obsessed by “culture”. Dave Barger, the CEO of JetBlue, a budget airline, argues that it is much harder for competitors to copy your culture than your strategy. Tony Hsieh, the founder of Zappos, an internet retailer, ascribes his company’s success to its idiosyncratic culture, which is lovingly described in a book, “Delivering Happiness”. Netflix, an online-video business, regards its culture as so important that it has tried to distil it into a 126-page PowerPoint presentation. So far the document has been viewed more than 4m times.

But what does “corporate culture” actually mean? For some people it means the image that a company projects to the world. For others it means a company’s most cherished habits—the HP Way or the Walmart Way. For others still it means its canteen culture, “the way we do things around here”, which is often the opposite of the formal rules. Goldman Sachs’s formal culture proclaims that customers come first. Its canteen culture, at least according to one former banker at the firm, proclaims that customers are “Muppets”. “CEOs can talk and blab all day about culture,” Jack Welch once said, “but the employees know who the jerks are.”

The term is so vague that culture-based explanations are often meaningless. Are bankers greedy because banks have a toxic culture or do banks have a toxic culture because bankers are greedy? Do companies fail because they have a toxic culture or do they have a toxic culture because they are going down the pan? Some successful companies, such as Apple, elicit cultlike loyalty from their employees. Others, including Ryanair, are as unpopular with their employees as they are with their customers. Perhaps there are as many successful cultures as there are successful companies.

And how do you manage “culture” successfully? Companies routinely produce mission statements that are supposed to express their cultural DNA, but in fact simply list feel-good words in different permutations. Companies equally routinely engage in “culture change” programmes. But these usually provoke fierce resistance from employees. Peter Drucker, a booster of corporate culture, liked to say that “culture eats strategy for breakfast”; it is equally true to say that canteen culture eats corner-office culture for breakfast.

John Childress, a management consultant, has written a sensible if somewhat flat-footed guide to the subject. Mr Childress could have done with a better editor: “Leverage” would have had more leverage if it had lost 100 pages and a dozen overused examples. His folksy prose-style (“just what the heck is corporate culture?”) is grating. Still, he knows his subject well, and writes about it with enthusiasm. He produces some nice examples of culture-driven disasters: Carly Fiorina failed as CEO of Hewlett-Packard because she tried to impose a sales-driven culture on an engineering-dominated organisation. He notes that it is pointless to focus on producing the right culture if you do not back it up with robust business capabilities: Zappos can turn around an order in eight minutes thanks to heavy investment in technology. He also points out that the most common mistake bosses make when they try to change cultures is to think in grandiose terms, whereas it is often the little things that matter most. “Sensible” might not sound like particularly high praise but, for a business book in this charlatan-infested field, it is an accolade worth having.

From the print edition: Business books quarterly

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.

About johnrchildress

John Childress is currently Visiting Professor in Strategy and Culture at IE Business School in Madrid and 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 john@johnrchildress.com or john.childress@theprincipiagroup.com
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4 Responses to Read The Economist review of my new book, LEVERAGE: The CEO’s Guide to Corporate Culture

  1. Congratulations John, just getting your book reviewed by the Economist is an achievement in itself.

    Like

  2. Pingback: “Sensible” in a Charlatan world? Damned Faint Praise? | John R Childress . . . Rethinking

  3. Pingback: Fundamental components to build company culture | Wiweck Singh

  4. Pingback: The Author’s Essential Toolkit . . . | John R Childress . . . Rethinking

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