A Few More Corporate Culture Myths


This is the third (and final) posting on the myths of corporate culture.  You might want to review the first and second posting as well.  These myths are taken from a chapter in my new book – LEVERAGE: The CEO’s Guide to Corporate Culture, available in paperback and eBook format from Amazon.


Myth 9:  A Charismatic CEO is necessary to build a high-performance culture

The myth of a cult-like or high-performance culture being the result of a charismatic CEO or founder has been amply fuelled in the press and even certain academic circles on the shoulders of such CEOs as Steve Jobs, Jack Welch, Tony Hsieh, Richard Branson, Lee Iacocca, Oprah Winfrey.  There are even a dozen business books about Charismatic Leadership.

The leader with special “charisma” has a great deal of personal “power” and influence, especially among those in the inner circle, who then spread the message.  But not all charismatic leaders build high-performance cultures.  Jamie Diamon has considerable power and charisma, yet the culture within JP Morgan Chase is not considered high-performance, but trends more towards dysfunctional or even toxic in some subcultures of the bank.  Richard Fuld was charismatic and forceful, and turned Lehman Brothers into a highly toxic organization that eventually imploded.

Force of character and charisma among founders sets in place strong behaviours and approaches to business that often have great staying power, especially if the founder stays on for a long time. A good example is the Virgin empire of Richard Branson, whose personal beliefs about being different and offering a fun and positive customer experience is mirrored in his many company brands.

However, I don’t believe anyone thought of Sam Walton as charismatic, at least not in the extroverted manner of behaviour.  But he was highly focused and strong in his beliefs about how a good business should be run and how people should be treated.  Perhaps more than charisma, we should be looking at the relationship between the leader’s commitment to beliefs about how to treat employees and customers and the development of a high-performance culture.

Myth 10:  Culture can be managed like any other complex business program or process


 Culture can and should be managed, and more than managed, led by a senior team dedicated to living, role modelling and promoting the elements of the corporate culture.

But managing culture takes more than just good project management skills and much more finesse, since milestones and metrics are not nearly as concrete and measurable for culture as they are for a business program. In the case of culture, leadership is required far more than management skills, and not just from the leadership team.  Every employee needs to feel accountable for promoting the culture, modeling the behaviors, and coaching others who “forget” or need some reminding.  Culture is the “mega-program” and everyone is a “project lead”.

Myth 11:  A company serious about its culture needs a CCO (Chief Culture Officer)

Wrong!  One of the key lessons learned from why most strategies fail in execution is the fact that most functions or departments tends to stick to its own work and focus on their own goals and objectives. They live and work in silos.  Culture, like strategy, is a horizontal value stream, connecting every single department or function and every single employee no matter at what level.  If anyone is the CCO its the Chief Executive who has the ultimate responsibility for the strength and alignment of the culture to the strategy, but it’s better to create an entire army of CCO’s.

Myth 12:  Culture is fundamentally about Individual Values and Beliefs

Companies don’t have values, people have values, and no two people have the same values and therefore there will always be misalignment between people’s values and the organization.  So to say that culture is about values is actually saying that culture is about people.  Okay, but so what?

I think what is really important here is to understand that we can’t easily, if ever, change human values, but behaviors in the workplace can be modified or realigned to produce better outcomes.  New hires coming into an organization don’t change their basic values, but they quickly tend to shift their behavior to fit in with the subculture and as a result of strong peer and boss pressure. Culture is about the visible and habitual behaviors used to deal with each other, customers and business issues.

 Myth 13:  Culture is the biggest reason for resistance to change and failed business  initiatives or mergers

Culture is indeed a factor in resistance to change, even in the most cult-like cultures, because resistance to change seems to be hard-wired into the human DNA for survival reasons.  The classic response of “flight or fight” is connected to our human resistance to change. And the organisation is a collection of people, so resistance to change is to be expected, no matter how sound the change logic.  And I think this is the real important point, all change is first looked at with resistance, period. “Let’s go down to the bank, they are giving away free $100 bills! . . . Oh, I don’t know, it’s not break time yet!” (Okay, I’m exaggerating, but you get the point).

Most resistance to change is not the culture, or the change itself, but how it is presented! Few managers and executives stop to consider how to minimize the human resistance to change when introducing something different.  It seems as if they actually believe that because the boss said it, people will automatically fall in line and change. At best they get “malicious obedience” with zero commitment or creativity.

Myth 14:  Culture Change takes 3-5 years

speed of change

In some cases, particularly with the traditional top-down or sheep-dip approaches, culture change can and does take years, if ever. And at times, a slow but steady change is perfect for the business situation required.  At other times, speed is the requirement.

In that case, new leadership, some clear non-negotiable behaviors (with consequences), serious focus on better training for middle managers and supervisors, and rewards and incentives tied to the new culture, can dramatically accelerate the process.  The whole point about culture change is, it takes a new habit to replace an old habit, and new behaviors take time to introduce and require constant reinforcement to become habits.

Myth 15:  Culture can be changed

What do you think?

John R. Childress

Senior Executive Advisor on Leadership, Culture and Strategy Execution Issues,
Business Author and Advisor to CEOs
Visiting Professor, IE Business School, Madrid

+44-208-741-6390  office
+44-7833-493-999  uk mobile
Twitter @bizjrchildress

Read John’s blog
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Just published: LEVERAGE: The CEO’s Guide to Corporate Culture

Read  The Economist review of LEVERAGE
Also on Amazon:   
FASTBREAK: The CEO’s Guide to Strategy Execution

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 john@johnrchildress.com or john.childress@theprincipiagroup.com
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1 Response to A Few More Corporate Culture Myths

  1. Frank Tempesta says:

    Myth 12 is profound; differentiation between individual employee values vs. habitual behavior in the workplace.

    Sent from my iPad



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