Understanding Corporate Culture in the Context of Time


There is nothing permanent except change.  ~Heraclitus

From the years 1966 through 1974 I studied evolutionary biology at both undergraduate and graduate levels.  Seeing the world through the dimension of evolutionary time provides an all important context for understanding why things are the way they are. Human behaviour is more easily understood when one adds in the dimension of time.  In the case of human beings, a short three million year journey from the treetops of Africa to so-called modern civilisation.

To know that survival among early humanoids centered around belonging to a group or tribe helps us understand the fascinating phenomenon of the rapid adoption of fads and trends in fashion and the explosive uptake of social media. As a species we are hard-wired to belong to a group of like-minded people. To be left out of the group, at work or in a social setting, is both uncomfortable and concerning to most people.

Time provides both context and perspective when trying to understand the world around us.

Corporate culture and the dimension of time:

As a senior executive advisor whose role is to help companies become more effective at strategy execution and overall performance, like may others I want to understand the current corporate culture and how it impacts, either positively or negatively, the ability of the company to deliver on its strategic and business objectives.

However, while most culture consultants focus on the current corporate culture through the use of structured assessments and surveys, I try to understand not only what the culture is like, but more importantly, why it is the way it is.  Is it overly bureaucratic and hierarchical? Why?  Is it plagued with lack of accountability and a low sense of urgency? Why?  Is the culture inward focused or customer focused?  Why?

He who knows why will always win over those who only know what or how!  ~Thomas D. Willhite

And looking at the evolution of the company and the culture over time provides great insight into the current culture drivers, and more importantly, the levers for reshaping the culture to better fit the go forward business strategy of the company.

Here is a (fictitious) example of a nearly 100-year-old company doing business in over 50 countries today. The organisation currently has approximately 2,300 employees, does roughly $500 million in revenue, is the recognised brand leader in its industry, and is struggling with a culture of poor accountability and lack of sense of urgency.

While a normal culture survey will be able to point out such accountability and lack of urgency issues, it does not tell us why these issues exist or give much insight into the change levers required to better align the culture with the forward strategy.

As a result, most culture change consultants will use their standard methodology, usually patterned after the work of Harvard professor John Kotter and his 8-step culture change approach, to attempt a culture change

kotter 8 steps

But why take a shotgun approach hoping to hit the right targets when you can laser in to the 2 or 3 key culture drivers and change levers?

Let’s look at this same company through the eyes of evolutionary change. Reviewing the overall history and talking to those who have been around a long time gives important insights into the strengths and weaknesses of the current culture in relation to the business strategy.

When looking at the this historical growth chart, it becomes obvious to ask some key questions about the various phases of the company history. And these questions allow us to gain a more complete picture of why things are currently the way they are.  Based on how the company has grown over the past decades it is easy to see how the culture has evolved, and determine insights into the important culture question: WHY?

Cultures ABC

The forces driving both the business results and the company culture are very different during the three phases of the company’s history. Why the flat growth during phase A and what was the culture like?  What were the internal pressures on the culture during phase B and did it shift to match the explosive growth? What culture change drivers were different between culture  A and B? Why? Obviously the growth trajectory of the company has now slowed down. Did Culture B contain the seeds of the growth demise? Why? What are the internal and external pressures impacting Culture C? Why?

Answers to these important evolutionary questions are critical to understand the 2-3 key culture change levers as the company attempts to align culture with a new growth strategy.

There are no secrets that time does not reveal.  ~Jean Racine

Don’t just look at a current culture “snapshot” from a one-dimensional culture survey, watch the movie!

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 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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1 Response to Understanding Corporate Culture in the Context of Time

  1. Dave Eaton says:

    Great John

    Dave Eaton
    Senior Partner
    Practice Leader, Culture Transformation


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