Before You Decide on a Culture Audit . . .

(This blog posting features excerpts from Chapter 12 in my recent book; LEVERAGE: The CEO’s Guide to Corporate Culture.)


“I can’t define pornography, but I know it when I see it.”  ~US Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart

Corporate culture is also difficult to define.  In fact there are hundreds of definitions of culture and over 70+ different corporate culture audits or surveys on the market to define your specific culture.  I wonder if they all measure the same thing?

NOT.  And that’s just one of the big problems with the current business interest in corporate culture.  There is no doubt that corporate culture (the habitual work behaviours employees use to deal with each other, customers and business issues) impacts performance.  That fact has been well established.  But what is not clear at all is HOW culture impacts performance and just which of the many components that make up corporate culture are the real performance drivers and which are secondary or even tertiary.


The many different corporate culture audits, surveys, assessments and profiles available give you a nice visual (and even statistically significant) snapshot, but is that really measuring your culture, or some academic or consultant’s model of culture?

“Not everything that can be measured counts, and not everything that counts can be measured.”  ~Albert Einstein

It’s a very important question since the decision to embark on a culture survey often leads to a “culture change program”.  And the reality is, most culture change programs fail.  The current estimate is about 80% failure to bring about the new culture desired.

“Would you schedule yourself for elective surgery with an 80% failure rate?”

Let’s Think This Through Together

Alone we can do so little; together we can do so much
~ Helen Keller

I am frequently asked by CEOs and business leaders for my suggestions on how to decide whether or not to conduct a culture audit. Here is the list I usually bring out and together we discuss the pros and cons.

  1. Be very clear on your purpose. What specifically about how your organization behaves do you want to know? Is there a recurring problem or issue that is behind your desire to learn more about your culture?
  2. Don’t assess your company culture just for the sake of curiosity. All assessments and surveys disrupt the ‘psyche’ and normal workflow of people and often raise more questions than answers.
  3. Start with the end result. What specifically do you want to achieve at the end of the process? What, besides information, do you need to have from a culture assessment?
  4. Match Instrument with the Purpose. The instrument and approach chosen should be determined by your purpose.
  5. Use the survey for information and ideas to fix a specific problem, not the culture. Employees understand fixing specific problems in order to improve how work gets done, but few of us at any level can get our mind around culture change.
  6. Culture or Complaints? In most organizations employees aren’t often asked to give input on the business and in many cases employees use a culture audit to air their grievances, pet issues and to complain. That’s not necessarily culture but more often a sign of morale problems, poor management or work constraints.
  7. Culture or Climate? Be clear you are getting a culture assessment and not a ‘climate’ assessment. Climate survey (how people feel at the  moment) is like the current weather report.  Culture on the other hand should be more like a geological survey to determine the real underpinnings of the organization.
  8. Trial Run. You and your senior team should take the survey first and get a debrief so you can fully understand the process, the methodology, the cultural interpretations and the quality of the consultants. If it doesn’t feel right (and you, the CEO, should ultimately make that call), then don’t continue. If the consulting firm balks at a senior team trial, ditch the firm and find another.

And my final words on Culture Assessments:

Remember, not every business issue, or culture issue for that matter, shows up on a culture profile.

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.

John also writes thriller novels:

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
This entry was posted in consulting, corporate culture, Human Psychology, John R Childress, leadership, Organization Behavior, strategy execution and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s