Experience isn’t the best teacher, it’s the only teacher. ~ Albert Schweitzer
I have worked alongside many CEOs and business executives, as well as numerous academics who spend their lives researching, thinking and writing about the world of business. Both groups are hard-working, focused on delivering, and often equally intelligent. However, those in leadership roles in P&L businesses have at least one thing that the academics (and most consultants for that matter) don’t; and that is actual leadership experience!
While being a CEO or business leader may look glamorous from the outside, especially with some of the huge salaries being passed out, I can guarantee you it is definitely not the movie star lifestyle as glorified in the press. It is hard work, long hours, multiple challenges coming simultaneously from all directions; many of which CEOs have not faced before. And the rise of technology, disruptive competition and social media have only intensified the daily chores of a CEO. Yet it is by dealing with these multiple issues that CEOs gain more experience and develop more capabilities required for successful leadership of a company and people.
Much wisdom is gained from experience, and most of that comes from bad experiences
What bothers me more and more is that many of the academics and consultants actually believe they understand the world of the CEO and business leader without ever having had to shoulder the responsibilities of leadership. And to add to this hubris, they have developed “solutions” designed to deliver excellence.
And one of the most talked about solutions being offered today is “culture change”!
Savvy leaders and culture change
I was sitting in the office of a former client a few weeks ago just catching up on his new role as leader of three recently merged technology services organisations. A big integration and turnaround challenge, combined with being in an industry with a competitor with a majority of the current market share. A challenge, by the way, which he is well equipped for from past successful leadership and turnaround challenges.
During our conversation I brought up the issue of culture change. He immediately jumped on the topic with enthusiasm. And his remarks were very similar to those I have heard repeated many times by savvy and experienced business leaders.
They went something like this:
“What most people don’t seem to understand is that corporate culture is an outcome of multiple inputs. Business effectiveness and the behaviour of employees as they go about their daily work, what most people call corporate culture, is the result of multiple drivers, not just one thing. Trying to “change culture” through surveys and culture training is like trying to improve profit by measuring the profit number on the P&L spreadsheet. Profit is an outcome of multiple business drivers. And your culture is an outcome of multiple business practices and policies.
And most academics and consultants don’t understand the drivers of culture. Measuring the gap between the current and desired culture is about as useful as measuring the gap between the current profit and the desired profit. It’s more important to understand, find and fix the causal factors, and this is where most culture programs fall down.
Top-down messaging, “tone from the top”, cascading workshops are interesting and even motivating, but then people go back into the old work environment, with the same old policies, work practices, objectives and tools that caused the old culture in the first place. Real culture change comes about from understanding the multiple workplace drivers, and then leadership having the courage to change those policies and practices to ones which both deliver results and drive different behaviours.
If you want to change a culture to be more aligned with the realities of your business and marketplace, change the work systems and the behaviour will follow. And make certain you have a senior team that reinforces those new behaviours.”
Wisdom from real life experience.
And I read what culture consultants and academics say about how long it takes to change a culture – the standard thinking is 3-5 years. What if that was the time frame only because of lack of real understanding about culture? What if you really understood the drivers of culture and workplace behaviour?
The stunning turnaround and “culture change” of Continental Airlines between 1994-95 and it’s subsequent 15 years of record performance, was the result of a courageous CEO changing workplace policies, business practices and leadership practices. In one year they went from impending bankruptcy to top of the airline league tables.
The culture change at NUMMI, a joint venture between General Motors and Toyota took the worst performing auto plant in GM from poor quality and militant culture to the best quality plant of all GM plants, and a culture of loyalty and pride, with the same employees, in just one year by changing the working practices, tools and management philosophy. I had the good fortune of working on a similar dramatic change with the shift in the Ford owned Halewood plant in the mid 1990’s. A dramatic culture change that didn’t focus on culture, but on work practices and leadership instead.
Want to reshape your corporate culture? Forget the words culture and culture change. Focus instead on finding and fixing the drivers that are causing and sustaining your current culture, then have the leadership courage to change them. Employees can and will shift their beliefs and behaviours if leadership changes the work policies and practices that drive those behaviours.
I would rather share a meagre meal with a learned person than a banquet with a fool.
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
John also writes thriller novels!