Cultural Drift . . .


I clearly remember my second year in college sitting in a marine geology class and discussing the then revolutionary topic of continental drift. After decades of theories and much scoffing at the subject of plate tectonics by renowned scientists, in 1968 Geophysicist Jack Oliver published seismology evidence supporting plate tectonics and continental drift. Massive areas of the ocean floor could move, although extremely slowly (geologic time), but small movements over millions of years have created our dynamically changing planet earth.

The analogy between continental drift and shifts over time in corporate culture is quite clear to me and needs to be better understood by business leaders.

Almost all early stage companies have some sort of foundation principles for how they will conduct business and how people should behave at work. While perhaps not as codified as the examples from Netflix, HubSpot or, never the less they helped to establish the early ‘ways of working’ in the company and proved highly useful in establishing alignment between customers, employees and owners. So in some sense, all founding organizations had a culture by design, some stronger and more transparent than others.

The problem with most organizations as they grow and change is that nearly everythingculture drift gets managed, sometimes micro-managed, except the culture. Culture is often left to its own and as a result, organizations experience ‘cultural drift’ and over a fairly short period of time wind up very different from how they started.

One of the prime reasons so many well aligned cultures shift out of alignment over time is that executives at the top don’t fully understand or appreciate the importance of culture.  Most don’t know how (and some don’t care) to manage corporate culture. This lack of understanding and appreciation can lead to lost ‘leadership moments’ that could have kept the culture in alignment.

As a result of culture neglect and unaware leadership, over time a culture will drift from aligned and optimal towards the median, or mediocre. And given the pressures of growth, mergers or acquisitions, sudden competitive challenges, or significant leadership changes, toxic corporate cultures and negative subcultures can and will evolve. 

If you are not actively managing the culture, who is?  Chances are you won’t like the answer!

(above excerpted from LEVERAGE: The CEO’s Guide to Corporate Culture, by John R Childress, Principia Associates Press, 2013. London)

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.

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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