What Savvy Leaders Know about Culture Change . . . that consultants don’t


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.

Dilbert culture change

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

e: john@johnrchildress.com
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 john@johnrchildress.com or john.childress@theprincipiagroup.com
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