John Childress, Principia Associates, 353 pages, $24
“Culture” is the mot du jour in the business world. But what does “corporate culture” actually mean?
For some people it means the image that a company projects to the world. For others it means a company’s most cherished habits — the HP Way or the Wal-Mart Way. For others still it means its canteen culture, “the way we do things around here,” which is often the opposite of the formal rules. Goldman Sachs’ formal culture proclaims that customers come first. Its canteen culture, at least according to one former banker at the firm, proclaims that customers are “Muppets.” “CEOs can talk and blab all day about culture,” Jack Welch once said, “but the employees know who the jerks are.”
John Childress, a management consultant, has written a sensible if somewhat flat-footed guide to the subject. Childress could have done with a better editor: “Leverage” would have had more leverage if it had lost 100 pages and a dozen overused examples. His folksy prose style (“just what the heck is corporate culture?”) is grating.
Still, he knows his subject well, and writes about it with enthusiasm. He produces some nice examples of culture-driven disasters: Carly Fiorina failed as CEO of Hewlett-Packard because she tried to impose a sales-driven culture on an engineering-dominated organization.
He notes that it is pointless to focus on producing the right culture if you do not back it up with robust business capabilities: Zappos.com can turn around a shoe or clothing order in eight minutes thanks to heavy investment in technology. He also points out that the most common mistake bosses make when they try to change cultures is to think in grandiose terms, whereas it is often the little things that matter most.
“Sensible” might not sound like particularly high praise but, for a business book in this charlatan-infested field, it is an accolade worth having.