Why Corporate Culture is Like Concrete

concrete 2

“They swore by concrete. They built for eternity.”
― Gunter Grass

Concrete is the most widely used building material, by tonnage, in the world today. And it’s not a modern building material either. The first known use of concrete was some 12.000 years ago and many of the Roman buildings incorporated this easy to use material, resulting is new architectural concepts and designs, as well as long-lasting structures.

220px-Rome-Pantheon-Interieur1

PantheonAerialThe Roman Pantheon is one of the most spectacular early buildings made of concrete.

What makes concrete so useful in both ancient and modern construction is the fact that it starts out as a fluid solution able to take the form of anything it is poured into, yet soon turns solid, with great density and strength. One drawback of concrete is that it is extremely difficult to pour new concrete onto old, hard concrete and get a good connection. The two different aged concretes don’t seem to bond together and this creates on of the structural weaknesses, thus the use of internal rebar in most modern concrete structures.

Concrete and Corporate Culture:

In many ways, corporate culture is similar to concrete.  Early in the development of a company the values, beliefs and personalities of the founders easily blend together to form the informal “rules” of how we should work together and treat customers. These working rules and ways of behaving are soon codified into processes, policies, and procedures. Before long, there are policy hand books and new employees look to the older, established staff for clues on how to fit in. And before long, the social fabric and informal rules of how to behave and fit in take on a strength and life of their own. The culture tends to harden, behaviour patterns and ways of working are “set in stone” so to speak.

Once a culture ossifies and hardens, new ideas and ways of working, new procedures, even new technologies, are difficult to blend in. Like the poor bonding between old and new concrete, the old culture tends to reject new ideas.  They don’t stick.  People who don’t fit the culture tend to leave.  Research into why newly hired executives leave a company after only a few months reveals a culture rejection mechanism at work.

And culture change programmes also tend to fail.  The original culture is so pervasive that it has seeped into every element of daily life inside a company and hardened like concrete. A consultant-inspired top down culture change workshop fails to reshape the old culture. Rebranding exercises, new logos, store renovations, new CRM software and developing new “Core Values” are all weak attempts to change the old culture.

Even in drastic circumstances, like a near bankruptcy and turnaround, financial reengineering and a new business model may save the company from demise, but the old culture tends to remain and soon the resuscitated company is back on the doorstep of death again. Continental Airlines was approaching its third bankruptcy in 1994, each of the two previous infusions of cash and new leadership didn’t change the solid rock culture of negativity and cynicism.

There are ways to reshape corporate culture, but it is not an easy task and requires a unique knowledge of the levers that most influence and reshape ingrained, solidified behaviours.

 

Dilbert culture change

 

Written and Posted by: 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

e: john@johnrchildress.com
Twitter @bizjrchildress

Read John’s blog,  Business Books Website

On Amazon: 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

John also writes thriller novels!

About johnrchildress

John Childress is currently Visiting Professor in Strategy and Culture at IE Business School in Madrid and 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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