Corporate Culture is like a Fossil

Fossil

Very interesting for an old duffer like me to try his hand at something new. If I don’t do that once in a while, I might just turn into a fossil, you know!  ~Norman Rockwell

A fossil is a unique geologic artefact. A representation in rock of a once living organism that, by a set of special circumstances, has been preserved over geologic time.  Some fossils show the entire intact animal, so it is easy to visualize how it once may have looked and behaved.  Other times we only find a few bits and pieces and have to surmise the original.  Often the shape of the original animal has been deformed as the mud or rock was compressed and shifted by geologic forces. Fossils start out as one thing, a living animal or plant, and are transformed into another, a hard rock artefact.

Corporate culture is like a fossil.

What starts out as an original set of values, beliefs and assumptions laid down early in the develop of the company, can now only seen as artefacts of the original, hardened and preserved. We don’t see values or beliefs, instead we see groupings of habitual behaviours that are the artefacts of the original values and beliefs.

People (you and I) have Values, Beliefs and assumptions that guide our interactions in the world. Corporate culture is a set of observable, habitual behaviours. In other words, the culture we see today is an artefact, a fossil, a representation of the original beliefs and values the company was founded on. We only see the culture as it is represented to us via the collective and habitual behaviours of employees.   The beliefs and values are not visible, just as the original fossil animal is no longer visible, but the remains, in this case the behaviours, are what we see. And many times the visible behaviors have been reshaped from what was originally laid down early in the company.  Today’s culture is not always the same as depicted in the written corporate values.

For decades academics and business psychologists have promoted the idea that corporate culture is a collection of values, beliefs and assumptions that are specific for each organization.  Hence the popularity Corporate Values Statements.  Rewrite the stated company values and you will change the culture.

enronEnron had the following corporate values chiseled in stone inside their grand headquarters in Houston, Texas: Communication, Integrity, Respect, Excellence. Their values statements were highly visible inside the annual report and in marketing and recruiting material. Noble words, but it was habitual behaviors inside the company that led to its collapse. Words are fossils, behaviors are living and impact performance.

Want to understand more about your company culture? Don’t read the website or annual report. Watch how people treat each other.  Watch how they treat customers and suppliers.  Watch who gets promoted.  Listen to how people talk about “management” or “customers” or “patients”.

Culture lives in actions and behaviors, not fossilized value statements.

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 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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