Corporate Culture Assessments . . . .Why?


old new culture

“To get to where you want to go, you must first know your starting point”

Corporate Culture Assessments are definitely the rage in business at the moment.  There are over 70 different culture profile assessments on the markets, some focused on the entire organisation, others designed for niche segments of a culture, such as safety or risk.

QuinnThe objective of these assessments is to determine the current (and often the desired) culture using a survey based on “validated” questions designed to describe your company culture, it’s areas of strength and weakness. The pitch from consultants and academics is that by using a culture assessment you will know your current culture and where improvements to the culture should be focused  Many of the currently available culture assessments are based on the original work of Professors Kim Cameron and Robert Quinn in the early 1990s and the concepts of culture assessment, culture mapping and culture change are described in their landmark book, Diagnosing and Changing Organiztional Culture.

What vs Why

I have looked at hundreds of culture profiles, off-the-shelf as well as custom developed, and with each one I am bothered by the feeling that I am “seeing” the culture (or at least a snapshot of it), but not really “understanding” the culture.  It’s the difference between What is happening versus Why it is happening.

He who knows why will always lead those who just know what!  ~Thomas D. Willhite

Take the culture on an offshore oil rig for example.  Here is a place where a massive investment in safety training and education takes place long before an individual steps onto the rig for their first work assignment. They have taken classes, they have watched videos, they have had written exams and hands on experience with the equipment and situations.  There are several large global organisations devoted to safety training in the offshore oil industry.  The culture surveys undertaken by many oil companies show the organisation in the top 10% for safety cultures, having a strong safety culture. Everyone knows What to do.

burning-oil-rig-explosion-fire-photo11Yet employees still perform unsafe practices and there have been several unfortunate safety-related catastrophes, like the Exxon Valdez spill or the DeepWater Horizon oil rig explosion. The real question about the culture is not What the culture is, but Why people behave the way they do. A culture profile, no matter how “valid” or how large the database and how strong the Norms, does not tell you Why people behave in certain ways.

A similar situation exists inside many global banking organisations. Traders and executives have lots of training on financial regulations, ethics, values and many must have passed several industry certified examinations that prove they know what and how to  behave in accordance with regulations and ethics.  Yet over the past 6 years the banking industry has been fined over $120 billion for unethical and illegal activities.  It would be stupid to suggest that the cause is a lack of knowledge and that more training is needed.  They know what is right and wrong.  What the leadership at the top of big banks don’t know is Why their organisations behave unethically!

The key to reshaping or improving culture is knowing Why!

When someone asks me to assess their culture, I usually avoid the large, multiple question assessments on the market and start by asking,

  1. What are the behaviours causing you a business problem? The list that comes back often contains behaviours like:
    • The culture is too risk averse
    • People aren’t innovative and don’t bring up new ideas or new solutions
    • There is poor information sharing between functions
    • Not speaking up in meetings and then complaining after the meeting
    • Not bringing up potential unsafe or unethical issues to their bosses
    • Going along with poor decisions without challenging them
    • Not being honest in performance reviews
    • Not coaching and developing people to improve
  2. Then for each one I use conduct a Root-Cause analysis and use the 5-Why process.


Before long, we have gone past knowing what the culture is like to a deeper understanding of Why the culture is the way it is and where the real levers for culture change reside.

And 90% of the time, the answer is Not more training, but usually lies in the three major levers of culture: Leadership Behaviours, Informal Social Networks (Subcultures) and Internal Work Policies and Processes. Somewhere inside your company one or more of these levers are promoting and supporting behaviours that become habitual and institutionalised into your current corporate culture.

If you really want to understand what drives your culture and where the culture change levers are, then keep asking Why until you get to the root cause.  You will be surprised how insightful the final few Why answers can be!

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

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 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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