Always Drink Upstream From the Herd . . .

Upstream from Herd

When a herd of cattle enter a stream to drink, not only do they stir up the mud and silt, but use it as a toilet as well.  So you can imagine the water is much cleaner and healthier upstream than down.

Will Rogers was an American cowboy, vaudeville performer, humorist, newspaper columnist, social commentator, and stage and motion picture actor. Born in 1879 in Cherokee Nation, Indian Territory (now the state of Oklahoma), he was known for his

will rogers foolfancy rope tricks and wicked humor. He traveled around the world three times, made 71 movies (50 silent films and 21 “talkies”), and wrote more than 4,000 nationally syndicated newspaper columns. By the mid-1930s, the American people adored Rogers. He was the leading political wit of his time, and was the highest paid Hollywood movie star. Rogers died in 1935 at age 55 with aviator Wiley Post, when their small airplane crashed in northern Alaska.

I am a great fan of Will Rogers and his honest views of politics, human behaviour and life in general.  I am also a big fan of Value Chain Analysis for understanding Corporate Culture, and here is where Will Rogers and culture change intersect. (I’ll bet you were wondering where this blog was going!)

Understanding the Corporate Culture Value Chain

Culture is evidenced in the habitual ways that people inside organizations behave when solving business problems, interacting with each other, and dealing with customers and clients. But the cause of either a functional or dysfunctional corporate culture is not how people behave, that is a symptom, and we need to move “upstream” in the culture value chain to understand the drivers of cultural behaviours, and by finding the drivers we can also find the levers for reshaping culture to better support the business strategy and employee engagement.

not my faultSuppose we have a culture that is characterised by a “lack of accountability”, with people not going the extra mile to make something work out right. With this type of culture people are constantly justifying poor results using such phrases as “that’s not my job” or “I wanted to but he (usually a boss or supervisor) wouldn’t let me” or “If we had better equipment we could turn out better quality” or “I sent him an email about the problem, it’s not my fault he didn’t see it”.  A plethora of excuses, all with the same poor outcome.

On face value, maybe the problem is our hiring profile.  We tend to hire unaccountable people. Fix the hiring profile. That’s about as good a solution as asking the cattle not to urinate in the river! Yes we could have a better hiring profile, but very few employees come into a new job with a mission to blame others and be unaccountable.

So, let’s move up-stream. When we do, we find that there are several “causal factors” that tend to drive our current culture of accountability. First of all, managers tend to blame senior management when things go wrong as a natural defense mechanism because senior management is blaming them, the market, government regulations, each other.

Bad behaviour flows downstream, and picks up passengers along the way.

knockon effect

Another link in this unaccountable culture value chain is that people inside the company from top to bottom avoid confronting poor performance and don’t take the time to coach and develop people. And their excuse? “I’m too busy with my own job”.  Or, “that’s just the way he is, it’s too much trouble to deal with him/her”.  As a result, you get the culture you ignore.

Even further up the value chain we find several internal company policies that actually foster internal competition and blaming others. Some are formal policies, others informal. Such as sales and supply chain people have conflicting goals and budgets, and they are never in the same meeting to discuss customer problems. As a result they each attack the problem from their own silo thinking and budget constraints. Thus the constant blaming between Field Sales and Supply Chain when there is a customer problem.

By looking upstream we can begin to better understand the down-stream symptoms.

In my work with clients I often develop a Culture Landscape Map which is in essence a value chain with causal factors on the left that link to various behaviours, beliefs and actions that move from left to right with final outcomes.

Here’s an example of a culture value chain map:

Culture Landscape Map

By going upstream on the culture value chain, the levers for sustainable change become more and more obvious.

What’s really driving your culture?  Look upstream!

Fix the processes, not the people!  ~W. Edwards Deming

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,

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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