Newspapers, Company Policies and Corporate Culture

papers on the train

Several years ago a relatively new employee at a large British newspaper was curious why the papers were so big, so he asked one of the older executives. The reply came quickly. “All quality newspapers are big; customers would not want it any other way.”

A few years later, a rival company – the Independent – halved the size of its newspaper, and saw a surge in circulation. Subsequently, many competitors followed, to similar effect. Yes, customers did want it.

The practice of large format newspapers began in London in 1712 because the English government started taxing newspapers by the number of pages they printed. So,  news publishers responded by printing their stories on so-called broadsheets, to minimize the number of sheets required and reduce their tax liability.  This tax law was abolished in 1855 but newspapers just continued printing on the impractically large sheets of paper for the next 150 years.

Corporate Culture, Habits and Company Policies

One of the most sacrosanct elements of corporate life is the “company policy”. Usually established early in the formation of an organization, these policies, which govern “how things should be done around here”, impact every aspect of employee life, from the timing and content of expense reports and time cards, to pay scales and promotion requirements, to working times and vacation allotments, to the allocation of costs on the P&L. And company policy manuals are usually housed in multiple large binders.

And these are just the formal policies.  In most companies the number of formal policies are dwarfed by the informal policies; the amount of openness and transparency of data shared, the power of a middle manager or supervisor, whether or not bad behaviour is confronted or tolerated. The list goes on and on and in many ways determines the quality of work, employee engagement levels and the ultimate ability of the company to deliver on its strategic objectives.

The example of the British newspapers above is just one of many where a policy formed in the 1700’s to reduce printing costs because of government taxation policies carried on long after the government policy was abolished in 1855. No one asked the key question: “Why don’t we change our internal printing policy?”

5whyCorporate culture is mostly invisible and only really shows up in how people behave and conduct their work. To those interested in competitive advantage and company performance, culture can be either an enabler or a barrier. While it may be interesting to describe cultural behaviours, as most culture consultants do, the more effective and useful discussions focus on “Why”.  Why do we still print broadsheet papers 150 years after the tax law was abolished? Is there any real data for the preference of broadsheets over smaller paper sizes? How much could we reduce costa by going to a smaller format? Are you sure readers only want broadsheets?

In many cases, like the change in newspaper formats described above, we only ask these questions after a competitor makes a successful change.

Corporate culture is not just physical work behaviours, but also company mindsets and habitual ways of thinking. And in most companies, challenging “company policy” is definitely frowned upon. Until the competition starts eating your lunch!

In my work as an advisor to CEOs and senior executive teams on performance improvement, I see it as my job to question everything about how the company does things, from its yearly planning cycles to staff meetings to new employee on-boarding to hiring profiles, to their approach to strategy execution.  What I have come to realize is that company policies, written or unwritten, drive employee behaviour and company performance much more than people realize.

The luxury of being a paid outsider is that  I can ask the “Why” questions and people will listen.  Too often those inside who ask why are gently (and sometimes not so gently) told to mind their own business.

He who knows why will always win over he who just knows how.  ~Thomas D. Willhite

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

Website: www.johnrchildress.com

e: john@johnrchildress.com
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 currently Visiting Professor in Strategy and Culture at IE Business School in Madrid and 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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One Response to Newspapers, Company Policies and Corporate Culture

  1. Michael McNally says:

    JRC:

    I love the history lesson regarding the Independent causing a surge in its circulation by challenging beliefs and assumptions and cutting costs at the same time. Imagine that!

    Best,

    Michael J. McNally

    Aivia Corporation Strategic Leadership and Culture Development

    mobile: 541.543.5431 office: 541.343.0226 e-mail: michael@aiviacorp.com skype: aivia1

    >

    Like

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