Genes, DNA and Corporate Culture



I think that the formation of [DNA’s] structure by Watson and Crick may turn out to be the greatest development in the field of molecular genetics in recent years.
— Linus Pauling, Nobel Prize for Genetics


On April 25, 1953 Professors James Watson and Francis Crick proposed that DNA is composed of a double helix structure, which effectively solved the question of how DNA and chromosomes replicate and combine to form new individuals. It was a revolutionary proposal in modern science that would have profound ramifications for biology, genetics and modern medicine.

As a young graduate student in biology at Harvard University from 1970-1972, I had the fortune of meeting James Watson on several occasions and attending some of his lectures. He was arrogant, opinionated and self-centered, but his awkward personality did not detract from the fact that he and Francis Crick provided a fundamental platform for future molecular and genetic science.

DNA_helixBasically, DNA is the building block of life and contains within its double helix structure the code that not only differentiates one species from another, but also one individual from another. The exact sequence of the amino acids Adenine, Thymine, Guanine and Cytosine forms the code that determines what we are, and in many cases who we are as well. And a new individual born from two parents contains one strand of DNA (and its genetic code) from each parent, making us unique individuals, and not clones.

If you like, you can think of DNA as the software code which runs the operating system of living things.

Since all DNA is made up of just these four amino acids, differentiation lies in the sequence and where they sit on the chromosomes. This basic building block similarity allows for the modern genetic engineering to take place, which basically is the process of manually adding new DNA to an organism in order to add one or more new traits that are not already found in that organism. For example, plants have been modified for insect protection, herbicide resistance, virus resistance, enhanced nutrition, tolerance to environmental pressures and the production of edible vaccines.

And the fact that human beings and chimpanzee DNA matches to 98.8% identical tells you that even as little as 1.2% difference contains enough genetic code (or about 35 million differences) to account for the many striking differences between the two species.


Corporate Culture is Similar to DNA

There is no single corporate culture, but instead the culture of most organisations is a collection of subcultures which contain strong formal and informal ground rules which guide how people in that subgroup should behave. So, if you think about it, corporate culture is very much like the DNA strand that carries the genetic code for a particular organism or individual. Certain parts of the DNA molecule code for different genetic expressions, such as hair color, eye color, skin color, certain elements of personality and even the raw material for IQ and EQ.

In the case of a business or organisation, the corporate culture is composed of multiple subcultures. And within the same company, subcultures can be very different, just as on a strand of DNA the genetic code for hair color is different from the genetic code for shape of the ears. Each subculture has their own code of behaviour and acceptance / rejection mechanisms, which determine how people tend to behave.

Trying to describe the overall corporate culture is not nearly as useful, or interesting, as understanding the many subcultures and their behavioural norms.

And when it comes to M&A, the DNA analogy is particularly strong. A new individual is made from one strand of DNA from the mother and a complementary strand from the father. But in many cases one set of genes is stronger from one parent than another, creating a dominance situation. Male pattern baldness and eye color are the result of dominant genes overshadowing weaker, recessive genes and are inherited traits.

When two organisations merge, in many cases they have the same functions (HR, Engineering, Marketing, Finance, etc) but some are stronger than others, depending upon which organisation they come from. While one company may acquire the other and be considered the “dominant company”, reality is that some functions and their resulting best practices from the acquired company may be stronger and better fit for purpose in the merged entity. Ignoring these differences has led many an arrogant acquiring management team to totally discount the capabilities of the acquired firm, thus weakening the potential benefits of the merger.

And changing corporate culture is not as easy as simply conducting a “culture survey”, defining a few new “core values” and orchestrating top-down training. The core of the cultural DNA needs to change, and that means something akin to gene splicing and genetic engineering. Real culture change comes about by getting into the subcultural level and determining the actual internal policies and work practices that drive behaviour.

Next time someone around the Board table says “we need a culture change”, have everyone step back and reflect on just what that really means.

A poorly executed culture change programme does more harm than doing nothing. ~John R Childress

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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1 Response to Genes, DNA and Corporate Culture

  1. Frank Tempesta says:

    Good one.

    Sent from my iPhone



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