The Focus of Culture Change is not Culture

M magnifying glass fire (1)

Concentrate all your thoughts upon the work at hand. The sun’s rays do not burn until brought to a focus. ~Alexander Graham Bell

When I was a young boy I got great delight from playing with a magnifying glass. Not only did it make tiny things easier to see and study (I was a budding naturalist), but it could also be used to concentrate the sun’s rays to burn paper. One day I spent several hours burning my name onto a piece of pine wood.  It hung on my bedroom door for years.

In life and in business, focus is one of the key ingredients for achievement. Whether Malcolm Gladwell’s statement in his popular book, Outliers, of taking 10,000 hours to achieve a high level of proficiency (mastery?) is accurate or not, I do know from watching my daughter excel playing classical music on the violin that a high level of proficiency only comes from “practice, practice, practice”. In a phrase my grandmother used to say, “Doing is achieving!”

But the issue of Focus comes with one big drawback: What to focus on? It is important to focus on the right thing if you wish to get sustainable results. And that’s where the difficulty with most change programs comes in. Just what to focus on to produce a sustainable change?

The Focus of Culture Change is Not Culture!


Most culture change programmes and culture gurus focus try to focus on the culture.  They do a culture assessment, current and desired, then locate the gaps.  When the gaps turn out to be things like “lack of accountability”, “poor top-down communications”, and “need for improved cross-departmental teamwork”, they prescribe team alignment workshops, accountability seminars and design new competency frameworks. Lots of energy is released, some of the workshops are engaging and inspiring even, and the internal communication department gets a renewed focus.  The CEO even writes a monthly blog!

When the activity is over, a few transformed individuals become role models for the new culture, but the vast majority slip right back into former culture habits and old ways of working. Then comes the cynicism and the finger-pointing and it will be a several years before any large-scale change programme is attempted again.

One of the lessons I have learned over the years of seeing hundreds of different assessments on everything from corporate culture to employee engagement to customer satisfaction is one of the fundamental truths from my first year statistics course in college:

Correlation is not always cause!

Just because there is a consistently low score on a behaviour such as “lack of accountability” doesn’t necessarily mean that people don’t understand the value of accountability in the culture. The more useful question (and inquiry) is: What are the “levers” driving or sustaining this company-wide behaviour pattern of lack of accountability?

If you don’t understand your corporate culture, you don’t understand your business.

I have used the above quote over the years in keynote speeches and whenever I am talking to a CEO or senior leadership team about strategy execution and business performance. The real meaning of this quote can be explained as follows:

If you don’t understand the major levers driving or sustaining your corporate culture, you don’t understand how to improve business performance!

When a serious and thoughtful root cause analysis is conducted on the cultural behaviours that block high-performance (using either a Fish-bone assessment or the 5-Whys), it is quickly possible to separate the causal factors from the correlative.

Over the years this approach has repeatedly shown that there exist three major levers that drive and sustain corporate culture (ie, habitual work attitudes and behaviours):

  1. Top-Down levers, such as individual and collective behaviours of the leadership team and middle management, how meetings are conducted and the groundrules of those meetings, the level of transparency of information passing between departments, who gets promoted, the collective focus of senior leadership on one or two P&L line items (such as strict adherence to budgets or cost control or profit margin focus),
  2. Bottom-Up levers, such as key social influencers, subculture groups with strong behavioural norms, informal leaders with large number of followers, strong national culture behaviours by employees, etc.
  3. Sustaining Levers, such as internal policies, established work practices, compensation formulas, hiring profiles, performance review practices, internal communications pathways, etc.

3 LeversBy focusing the change efforts on causal factors and not just a culture gap analysis or correlative factors, real shifts in behaviour and business performance will take place in a relatively short time. The well used statement that it takes 3-5 years to change culture is based on the old methods of top-down training cascades and other ineffective activities.

The real key is understanding that corporate culture is the end product of many interrelated elements, a few causal, many correlative. Culture is not one of the elements itself, it’s the end result.  Just like improved profit or better customer service is the end product of doing certain things right. If you want to improve profitability, don’t focus on profit, focus on the things that drive profit.  The same is true for changing corporate culture.

For every effect there is a root cause. Find and address the root cause rather than try to fix the effect, as there is no end to the latter.

For related posts, see:

What Drives Corporate Culture?

Culture Change: the objective or the by-product?

Leadership, Friction and Culture Change


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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2 Responses to The Focus of Culture Change is not Culture

  1. Dave Eaton says:


    Dave Eaton
    Senior Partner
    Practice Leader, Culture Transformation

    200 West Street
    Suite 400
    Waltham, MA 02451

    +1 781.609.4135 DD | +1 617.306.1411 MOBILE | +1 781.609.0790 FAX
    Latest on Culture:
    The Power of Culture Transformation
    Watch Case Study on Cultural Integration


  2. Frank Tempesta says:

    Excellent piece.

    Sent from my iPhone



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