In Search of the Real Corporate Culture

There is nothing more deceptive than an obvious fact. ~Arthur Conan Doyle

As a young boy I read most of the Sherlock Holmes books, watched the old black and white movies on TV late at night when Basil Rathbone was the quintessential Holmes. And of course I watched all the new Sherlock series with Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman and can’t wait for the next episodes.

What I really like about the Holmes mysteries is that many of the major clues are usually in plain sight, and yet everyone misses them, except Holmes of course!

A Clue About Corporate Culture

Corporate culture is getting a lot of attention these days, and rightly so since we have some pretty strong evidence that culture impacts performance, both positively and negatively. We also know that culture is a complex mixture of many elements including shared beliefs, habitual ways of working, company history, strength of the on-boarding process, company policies, and of course, the behaviour and actions of the leadership team.  In addition there is a lot of focus on one of the outcomes of corporate culture; employee engagement, with the argument being that the more “engaged” employees are with the company and their fellow workers the more productive and innovative they are.  And again there is good evidence, mostly correlative, that high engagement levels lead to better employee productivity and openness to change.

So, an intense focus has been put on the leadership team and employee engagement. But aren’t we missing something?  There is a very important group in the middle between executives and 1st and 2nd level employees: middle management.

I’ve been promoted to middle management. I never thought I’d sink so low.  ~Tim Gould

I believe that middle management attitudes and actions (how they behave in the workplace and in daily work situations) have much larger influence on the overall corporate culture than most people realize, and yet in culture study after study they are virtually ignored, the focus being on leadership and employee engagement.

Yet in many ways, middle management determines the culture. The role of leadership is to set direction, develop the business strategy, determine ways to beat the competition, and also establish the internal groundrules (what some call values or operating principles). And of course at the employee level is where these are put into practice, where the work gets done and the customer is dealt with.  But the vision, values, groundrules and objectives never come directly from the CEO or the senior team.  They are interpreted by middle management!

Middle management are the translators, and we all know that no matter how fluent they are, translators often get it wrong and can easily use the wrong word for a totally different meaning.


And since middle managers are often left out of senior meetings where issues are discussed and decisions made, they often do the best they can to translate accurately. Yet many middle managers also feel disenfranchised, especially in a culture where many of the upper management positions are filled from the outside and personal development opportunities are slim.

Middle management is an important part of the company performance equation, yet most companies focus more development time and money on the leaders and front-line employees than on middle managers. Yet middle managers have a great deal of real influence on how work is done, beliefs about leadership and the company, and the lives of day-to-day employees.

This graphic shows the important role of middle management in determining the culture at the front line. And it is at the front line that most customers experience the culture of the company.  Customers don’t sit in the Executive Conference Room, but they do sit in the waiting room at the hospital or stand in line at the check-out counter, or try to get a problem resolved from the Call Center. It is easy to see how a culture can get out of alignment with the vision, values and strategy and in some cases actually become a barrier to execution, innovation and change.

Middle Mgt Translators

When was the last time your company spent as much time and development dollars on middle management as they do on senior executives and front-line employees? When was the last time middle managers were invited to sit in on upper management meetings? When was the last time middle managers were asked to speak or present at company meetings, or Board Meetings, or conferences?

Want to reshape your corporate culture?  Don’t forget to recruit the key translators, middle managers, onto your change team. While organizations may be shadows of their leaders, culture at the employee level is a shadow of middle management!

Elementary, my dear Dr. Watson!

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,

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

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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