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