Where is Your Corporate Culture Located?

street lightSeek and ye shall find, but only if you are looking in the right place!

A policeman was walking along a dimly lit street at night and noticed a man on hands and knees near the lamp post.  The man was obviously searching for something.  “What are you looking for?” asked the cop.  “My car keys. I seem to have lost them.”  “Are you certain you dropped them here?”  “No, but this is the only place that has any light!”

Ever since the publication of the global best seller, In Search of Excellence, by Tom Peters and Bob Waterman in 1984, academics, consultants and HR executives have been focused on corporate culture.  Hundreds of articles and books focus on defining, explaining, measuring, assessing, comparing, reshaping and changing corporate culture. With all that research and intellectual horsepower it seems only logical that the concept of corporate culture would be clear and simple to understand.

Alas, that is far from the case.  In fact there is not even an agreed upon definition of corporate culture and there are over 70 different culture assessment tools available, all purporting to have the definitive answer! And every day the business news has another article about corporate culture.  Most recently the focus has been on the “broken culture” of global banking and the “poor customer service culture” of RyanAir.

We know culture matters! We know culture impacts performance. We know leaders influence the culture.  We know peer pressure and the human social need to “fit in” mould and sustain corporate culture.

But just where is corporate culture?  Where does it reside inside the company? In a department or function? In work behaviours? In beliefs and corporate values?

Corporate Culture is Heard, Not Seen!

The classic answer is that corporate culture resides in the habitual and characteristic work behaviours of employees at all levels which they use to solve business challenges, interact with each other and customers. But cataloguing all the work behaviours that happen inside a company and determining which ones are cultural drivers is a monumental task.  Some may be major drivers, others minor, and some not cultural drivers at all.

Another place to look is in Values Surveys, where employees rate their own values versus that values espoused by the company.  Again this have proven to be a very weak indicator of corporate culture, since that same value, say “integrity” can have very different interpretations by different individuals inside the same company. And since many of our workplaces are highly diverse, with employees from many different ethnic and social backgrounds, it is easy to have different interpretations of the same value word.

Maybe we should be looking away from the lamp post!

water_cooler_conversationIt has been my experience that one of the strongest drivers of corporate culture, and actually a key place to really find your corporate culture, is in the informal stories told by employees around “the water cooler”.

Every culture has a set of stories that contain the “informal culture rules” about what is important, what is accepted, and how to win and fit in. It’s the company folk-lore and a powerful driver of corporate culture.

The stories may be about how the original founder went out of his way to help a customer. There may be a story of what happened to an employee who disagreed with his boss! There are numerous stories, which seem to circulate and recirculate, about what it’s like to work here, how to get ahead and how to keep your job! And these stories are told whenever and wherever employees gather where they feel “safe”. It could be at the canteen, around the water cooler, in the bar after work, at a weekend gathering of friends who work together.

If you listen, you will find your corporate culture. The real question is, do you like what you hear?

Posted by:

John R Childress
Senior Advisor on Corporate Culture, Leadership and Strategy Execution
Author of LEVERAGE: The CEO’s Guide to Corporate Culture
Visiting Professor, IE Business School, Madrid

email: john@johnrchildress.com

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 john@johnrchildress.com or john.childress@theprincipiagroup.com
This entry was posted in consulting, corporate culture, Human Psychology, John R Childress, leadership, Organization Behavior, Psychology, strategy execution and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Where is Your Corporate Culture Located?

  1. Hello John! Spot on regarding defining Corporate Culture; just look at the field of semantics to find how we can all observe the same phenomena and “see” something different. Like any field or endeavour, we get better as time goes on… hopefully:) Happy Holidays!


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