Culture Change: It’s All About Asking the Right Questions

The art and science of asking questions is the source of all knowledge. ~Thomas Berger

In my advisory work I frequently find myself sitting alone with a CEO or business founder listening to them talk about their management team and their company.   Not infrequently I hear the following statement, often made in a moment of frustration: “I think we need a culture change around here!”

If “culture change” were a product or a service, and I were a typical salesman, then that would be a definite buying signal and I would pounce, offering the solution. But that’s not the way it works.  Culture change is not a product (would you like that in blue or green, Sir?).

My response to these and other culture change questions tends to be a question in return; actually 6 questions. And the interesting thing is, we both wind up learning a whole lot that we didn’t know before:

  1. Are you certain you need a culture change?  (What is the evidence and how do you know culture is the real problem?)
  2. What are the strengths and weaknesses of your current culture in relation to your business strategy?
  3. What are the 2-3 leadership and employee behaviours required to enable the delivery of your business strategy?
  4. Why do you have the culture you have? (What are the root causes and what sustains your current culture?)
  5. What is the role of the senior leadership team in perpetuating your current culture?
  6. Are you willing to change internal processes, policies, business practices, rewards and recognition to better match the new culture required?

Many of these questions the CEO can’t fully answer. And then a fascinating process begins.  The search for understanding. And most business leaders and company founders are obsessed with understanding. It is actually one of the foundations of good leadership.  Not just surface understanding, but a deep level of insight that often can lead to breakthrough ideas.


Management teams aren’t good at asking questions. In business school, we train them to be good at giving answers. ~Clayton Christensen

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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