Corporate Culture, Professionalism and the Conundrum of Subcultures

Conundrum:  (noun) a confusing or difficult problem or question.


In my last blog post, The Illusion of Corporate Culture, Part 2, I focused on why I believe there is no one single corporate culture in an organization, but instead culture is really a combination of strong subcultures. When these subcultures are in alignment with the overall business strategy, there is alignment and the company uses this high performance culture to deliver results.  When the subcultures are out of alignment with the overall business strategy, the overall organization finds it difficult to deliver effective or efficient results.

The example I used was modern global banking, where very different subcultures exist between investment banking, operations and retail banking. Each of these very different subcultures are designed to fit the needs of that business and over time have become further adapted to deliver on their very different business models, customer bases and marketplace conditions.

Yet they all belong to the same bank and for senior leadership to govern and manage such a disparate organization, there is a need for some level of commonality across the company.

So here’s the interesting question: Should there be the common denominator across all subcultures within a given bank? If so, what would tie all these very different subcultures together?

The first answer that comes up from most culture consultants and HR experts is”Values”. “We need a common set of Shared Corporate Values”. Do you really believe that publishing a set of shared values will create the appropriate behaviours?

vlaues2A recent study across multiple industries plotted the percentage of times certain values showed up in corporate values statements.  Pretty standard stuff and definitely open to differing interpretations.

My problem with this simple answer is that commonly declared shared values, like Integrity and Teamwork, can mean very different things from one subculture to another. The other problem with trying to force fit common shared values across a large complex organization is the fact that most people, even executives, find them meaningless and not very useful in managing people or the business.

Rather than vague Values, I suggest we focus on behaviours.  We can see behaviours; values tend to be abstract.  Behaviours are real.  Behaviours drive outcomes. Behaviours can be managed.

But is there one or more behaviors that we can legitimately expect everyone in the company, and all the various subcultures, to adopt?

A Clue from Professional Rugby

I recently attended a business breakfast meeting in London where the guest speakers were three professional international league rugby players. Two recently retired and one still active. They stood out in the room of about 50 business executives, and not only because of their immense size (big as a house is a close approximation).  They stood out because of their attitude towards their work and the professionalism with which they approached their lives as rugby players, and in their business careers afterwards.

Rugby, in case you don’t know, is the consummate team game and highly physical. Players have to be at their peak mentally and physically not just at game time, but throughout the week of training events leading up to the games on Sunday. Playing rugby at the national and International Test level is a true profession and they take it seriously.

The two who had retired and were now employed in large UK businesses both had the same insight about the business world. The professionalism with which international athletes approach their work is very different from what they find in business.  In the nicest way what they were saying is that real professionalism is considerably lacking in business.

In rugby, the athletes take professionalism very seriously, and expect everyone, from the coach to the newest player to the support staff, to live according to highly professional standards. The team doesn’t work unless everyone is committed to professional attitudes and professional work behaviours.

10LHR_MumbaiIMG_3076One of the men gave a great example.  In business if someone gets behind on a project or doesn’t deliver to the agreed standard, other members of the management team tend to tiptoe around the individual, giving sympathy for the “difficult” issues they faced. Their coaching or encouragement tends to be weak and not very effective. “That wasn’t quite the result we were looking for, but I guess it was a difficult assignment. Better luck next time.”

In the rugby locker room, they take both individual and team performance seriously andlionstour when someone makes a mistake or doesn’t deliver to his ability, they receive direct feedback. Something like: “Your performance today was crap and you’d better sort yourself out before the next game. We’re counting on you. If you need some help or want to talk about how to improve, just ask.  We’re here for each other.”

Professionalism : the skill, good judgment, and appropriate behavior that is expected from a person who is well trained and strives to do a job well.

They even shared with the room some of their ground rules on professionalism:

  • Take all aspects of your work seriously, from training to game day
  • Don’t let the other guys down
  • Give 110% everyday, even when no one is looking
  • Get enough sleep, eat healthy, keep fit
  • Seek out criticism and feedback in order to get better
  • If you can’t focus 100% due to family or personal issues, take yourself out and let someone else fill that spot.
  • If you are playing for the money or the fan recognition, you quickly become the weakest link. It’s the love of the game that keeps you at your professional best.
  • Control yourself so you can best support others
  • Taking accountability and seeking out responsibility develops your leadership skills

I think there is something very powerful about these professional behaviours that we in business should reflect upon and think about adopting.

Could Professionalism be the common denominator that connects all the various subcultures of an organization?   Worth thinking about.

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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