Note: to understand why I blog so much about leadership, business life and corporate culture, you need to know a little about me as a person. Hope this helps.
Experience isn’t the best teacher, it is the only teacher! ~Dr. Albert Schweitzer
The other day I was talking with one of my clients in Australia who is driving a culture of high performance and accountability and delivering stellar performance results, with great people results as well. During the conversation he asked me a very direct question: “What caused you to spend your life studying, speaking and consulting on the importance of corporate culture?”
Believe it or not, in my 35+ years as a management consultant and business author, that was the first time I had been asked that simple, yet profound question. The easy answer is that I find it interesting and challenging. But the real answer goes back to a pivotal experience as a college junior-year-abroad student at the American University of Beirut, Lebanon in 1968-69. I didn’t know it then, but that year put me on a path to study and learn all I could about group behaviour, leadership, culture and change (it also formed the basis for my second novel, Game Changer – but that’s another story).
In 1968-69 I attended the American University of Beirut. Beirut was paradise when I first arrived in August. The world knew Beirut as the “Paris of the Middle East”, with wide boulevards lined with haute couture shops and outdoor cafes. French was spoken in all the restaurants and was the official second language. Wealthy businessmen from all over the Middle East sent their sons and daughters to AUB for a Western style education. My roommate in the dorm was born in Palestine of Armenian ancestry and very wise in the ways of international politics, something a young boy from a small town in California had no clue about.
We swam in the Mediterranean Sea and skied on the slopes of the mountains overlooking the metropolis of Beirut, all in the same day. I met a large number of students and became friendly with many. We all seemed to share the same views and values about life, education, the future, and of course, girls. In 1968 Beirut was like any other modern Mediterranean seaside city, full of life. (That’s NOT me in the picture).
Then in late December, 1968, Israeli commandos came ashore at night and blew up 13 MEA planes on the tarmac and shot out windows in the Beirut International Airport in reprisal for Lebanon sheltering Palestinian refugees, which the Israelis considered to be terrorists. They left 45 minutes later and at that moment, Beirut, AUB and my life changed. The very next day I flew into Beirut International Airport on a flight from Christmas with friends in Turkey. The still smouldering remains of burned out jetliners were in clear view and the Lebanese army was out in full force with multiple checkpoints on the road back to the University.
Needless to say our cozy college world was turned up-side down and for the rest of the year there were armed guards, ugly demonstrations, and terrorist activity across the city. I saw first hand how hatred and irrational beliefs on both sides could ruin a once peaceful and powerful trading city.
But what hit me the hardest was how many of my Arab friends at the University changed. I’m not certain they changed their core values, but they certainly changed their behaviour. Many of them traded in their books and guitars for Uzis and AK-47s and left school. Most I never heard from again.
This change in behaviour haunted me. Why? What caused their behaviour to change so radically? There was a human and social phenomenon going on that I didn’t understand.
I stayed at AUB amid all the riots, finished out the school year and went back to California to pursue my original studies in marine biology, but I wasn’t the same. After a Masters at Harvard and then Ph.D. studies at the University of Hawaii I still couldn’t shake the experience. I needed to figure this out.
While in my last year of PhD studies in marine biology in Hawaii, at the urging of a friend I attended a seminar on group dynamics. It was during the 4-day seminar that a series of light bulbs (no, floodlights) went off for me. People behave differently in groups than alone and social and peer pressure is one of the most powerful modifiers of human behaviour.
I dug into all the research I could find, learned about organization dynamics and in 1978 co-founded a consulting firm to further explore and consult on the nascent field of team behaviour in business, organization dynamics and business improvement. Then in 1984 Tom Peters and Bob Waterman, two former McKinsey consultants, published the NY Times bestseller, In Search of Excellence, about the importance of corporate culture (what we had been calling “the personality of the organization”) and its link to performance.
My consulting firm grew to offices in Los Angeles, New York and London and we worked on some of the biggest culture change projects. The restart of the Three Mile Island Nuclear plant after the accident, the shift in McDonalds from a process-centric to a customer-centric company, the rise of the “Baby Bells” after the breakup of the Bell Telephone Company in the US, and the transformation of British Gas TransCo and the turnaround of the Ford Halewood plant in the UK. All major learnings for me about the importance of culture, leadership and the courage to change.
In 2001 I retired from my firm to stop traveling and take time to rethink all I had learned. And what did I learn from this quiet reflection time in the South of France? There was still a great deal about culture, leadership and business improvement that I still didn’t understand!
And I guess I’m a slow learner since I am making new discoveries about leadership, culture and performance every day, mostly thanks to my clients and our many late nite discussions. I am currently working on a new book, The Many Faces of Corporate Culture, hopefully with more useful insights for those who lead and work in companies and organisations around the world.
Stay tuned. The journey continues.
Written and Posted by: John R. Childress
Senior Executive Advisor on Leadership, Culture and Strategy Execution Issues,
Business Author and Advisor to CEOs
John also writes thriller novels