We are connected to the past, but are not defined by it.
Many companies are proud of their heritage and company traditions. HSBC is 150 years old this year and planning multiple celebrations focused on its long tradition of supporting economic growth and wealth creation.
“Our company has a long, robust history, which began when a group of explorers and merchants established the Pacific Coast Oil Co. on Sept. 10, 1879. Since then, our company’s name has changed more than once, but we’ve always retained our founders’ spirit, grit, innovation and perseverance.” (Chevron website)
In many ways, nearly all companies use the legacy of the founders and their early values to help build pride, define who they are and to differentiate them from their peers. While start-ups have energy, passion and a future vision, established organisations have their history and legacy as well as a future vision.
But one of the many mistakes established and successful companies make is to confuse tradition and heritage with corporate culture. Many companies describe it something like this:
“Our heritage and long history of success are the foundations for our high performance culture today.”
More often than not that is just another example of corporate spin, otherwise known as BS!
Culture has very little to do with history and legacy and more to do with the day to day routine behaviours that management and employees use to solve problems and the current policies and procedures that everyone must adhere to.
In my book, LEVERAGE: The CEO’s Guide to Corporate Culture, I make the point that while founder values and leadership actions may be strong in the beginning, as a company grows the impact of leadership and history on corporate culture gives way to the peer pressure found in local subcultures inside the company. And since there is no single corporate culture, but instead most large companies are a collection of strong subcultures, history, heritage, tradition and legacy values may have little to do with how the modern company actually behaves.
Banking is an excellent example. The rise of strong trading and investment banking subcultures have completely overshadowed the values and legacy of the early founding fathers.
For companies such as HSBC to attempt to reshape their currently dysfunctional corporate culture by focusing on heritage and founding values is a design to fail. They should use the millions of dollars spent on their 150-year celebration to take an honest look at what really drives their current culture and performance.
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
John also writes thriller novels!