The Illusion of Corporate Culture, part 2


In my previous post, The Illusion of Corporate Culture, I put forth a heretical point of view:

There is no one corporate culture.  Organizations are really a collection of subcultures. If the subcultures are aligned with the overall business needs and strategy, then we call this a high-performance culture.  On the other hand, dysfunctional and toxic cultures exist when the various subcultures are significantly out of alignment with the strategy and needs of the business.

Continuing my learning from over 30+ years of research and consulting with CEOs and senior teams on corporate culture and culture change, not only are organizations a collection of subcultures, but often within the same company subcultures can be very different. And different subcultures have different levers and needs.  And when it comes to culture change, there is no one size fits all approach, contrary to the popular cascading “sheep dip” culture change workshop approaches.

A good example can be seen in the global banking industry, where the typical global bank is a collection of very different subcultures; investment bank and trading floors, back office functions, and retail and customer-centric banking.  To try to develop a culture change program to bring about one single corporate culture in these highly differentiated business environments would be ludicrous.


citibank londonInvestment banking and trading desk subcultures are characterised by speed of decision-making, a total reliance on data and information systems, persuasion skills are required, as is an appetite for risk the ability to spot discrepancies in the market and move quickly. Individual performance is values and recognized and the focus is on profit and return, not on relationships or necessarily customer needs. It’s a subculture of opportunism and speed blended with competitiveness and a dash of aggression and the need to be better than the person at the next desk.

Still within the same global bank, the subcultures of back office, technology and support esa_picfunctions tend to eschew risk for quality and sustainability. Teamwork and open sharing of information is a requirement for success. Long term planning, continuous improvement and dedicated investments in systems and capabilities are critical. The hero or superstar is discounted in favour of the ability to help and support others.  Speed is important, but not at the expense of quality or sustainability.

bank serviceCustomer-centric subcultures are found in wealth management functions, corporate banking and retail banking. Listening skills, empathy, customer problem solving and building long-term relationships are strong in these subcultures. Working together with other functions and departments to put together compelling customer propositions and solutions is the normal behaviour required. Risk taking and bending the rules and regulations is not a welcomed part of this subculture.

So, with all these various subcultures and their various requirements, behaviours and attitudes, why do consultants keep trying to describe your “bank culture” with a single chart? Or worse yet, try to engineer a top-down sheep-dip culture change program?

Should there be the common denominator across all subcultures within a given bank? If so, what would tie all these very different subcultures together?   Good question.

Most culture experts would quickly answer with “Corporate Values, of course”.  I tend to think this is an  over simplistic view of corporate culture and one which, based on current events, doesn’t seem to work in big global banks, or other large organizations.

In my next post we look to the world of International Rugby for a possible answer to what could tie subcultures together.

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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1 Response to The Illusion of Corporate Culture, part 2

  1. Pingback: Corporate Culture, Professionalism and the Conundrum of Subcultures | John R Childress . . . Rethinking

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