Culture Audits: We Have Been Asking the Wrong Question


Once the herd starts moving in one direction, it’s very hard to turn it, even slightly.  ~Dan Rather (journalist and former CBS News Anchor)

I grew up at the dawn of the television era and watched intently as Walter Cronkite, Dan Rather and other professional journalists commented on the news of the world. I’ve always liked this quote by Dan Rather as it reminds me that once a belief gets started about something, it’s hard for new facts to change that opinion.

The Herd of Culture Audits

For the past several decades in the business literature and academic journals there has been a plethora of writing, talking and consulting around “corporate culture audits”.  While there is no common agreed upon definition of corporate culture by academics and professionals, there are an amazing good number of culture audits on the market.  In fact, by my last count there are over 70 different culture assessment tools (surveys, audits, etc.) available (see LEVERAGE: The CEO’s Guide to Corporate Culture)

What is fascinating to me is that while they each measure slightly different aspects of what they call corporate culture, the majority measure them in exactly the same way.  They use a questionnaire given to various levels within the organisation and ask the individuals to score each question, usually on a numerical scale from “least like the culture” to “most like the culture”.  Then they aggregate all the scores, take an average and bingo! A culture profile is developed which supposedly describes the overall corporate culture.

Are we asking the wrong question?

But what if there isn’t one overall culture, but actually numerous subcultures (some strong and others weaker) in a company?  Blending all these subcultures into an overall average corporate culture profile could be missing a lot of valuable information to help understand how culture and performance are related and also understand the levers required to reshape culture.

After over 30 years studying corporate culture in numerous industries (nuclear power, retail, transportation, manufacturing, defence electronics and FMCG), I am convinced that there is no such thing as an overall corporate culture but instead an organisation is comprised of numerous subcultures. In rare cases the subcultures are aligned and in synch with the overall goals and values espoused by leadership.  In most cases, there is misalignment and senior management wonders why execution is so difficult.


The Herd Keeps Moving On  

In this modern era of consumer niche identification and targeted marketing that has proven so effective from digital retailers to presidential campaigns, why do business leaders continue to use massive, one-message-fits-all, top down culture change communications and workshops in an attempt to change culture? First of all, it doesn’t work well (see LEVERAGE: The CEOs Guide to Corporate Culture) and secondly, it totally overlooks the fact that organisations are really a collection of subcultures with their own beliefs, interests and leaders.

 There is no one overall corporate culture!

The real leverage to reshaping culture is to identify and understand the strong subcultures that exist within the company and then recruit the “informal leaders” and key influencers within those subcultures as your change agents.  The real fact is, employees trust their peers and the informal leaders for information and guidance far more than they trust management!

We have been asking the wrong question: It’s not “what is our corporate culture?”, but instead “where is our corporate culture?”

We now have the technology, through a special Social Network Analysis algorithm and organisational framework, to map the various subcultures and pinpoint not only where they are inside the organisation, but also pinpoint which individuals are the key cultural influencers.

This pioneering work, conducted under the direction of Dr. Leandro Hererro (author of two groundbreaking books: Viral Change and Homo Imitans) and with the assistance of a group of Eastern European software geniuses, is beginning to give us the vital insights required to truly understand and effectively reshape corporate cultures.

In future blogs I will talk more about the importance of subcultures, informal leaders, Social Network Analysis and culture change.

Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result!  (popularly attributed to Einstein but probably first penned by author and feminist Rita Mae Brown in her book, Sudden Death)

Thanks for joining the conversation!

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
Business Books Website

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

PS: 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
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