Organizational Culture: The Memory of an Elephant

A number of years ago, I got a call from a CEO of a high-tech firm that was having difficulty executing strategy. According to him, every fall the executive team went off on a high-powered retreat to do strategic planning, only to come back a year later with very little of it having been accomplished. At this point the market was catching up with them, and they needed to be much more nimble and innovative to compete. After several years of trying different facilitators, the CEO began to realize that perhaps the problem was with them. And perhaps it had to do with their culture.

How enlightened, I thought! It is wonderful to work with a leader who has the courage to explore the impact of culture on his or her organization. We talked about how to set up the project. He was concerned about the effectiveness of his management team and wanted to know what was preventing the execution of strategy in his company. He also said that he wanted to look at different geographic locations, as some were doing much better than others. He wanted to know if it was something about culture in those locations that was driving different business results.

Getting to the Root of Culture

We agreed to survey everyone in the company with the Organizational Culture Inventory® (OCI®)1 and break out results by management level and also by location. In addition, I conducted focus groups with employees and one-on-one interviews with managers and executives to gather qualitative data after the surveys were conducted, but before I got the survey results.

Whoa! What I learned through the interviews was that the CEO was what is known as a “screamer,” or a leader who was verbally abusive to his staff. Although I had never experienced this personally, I had learned about the impact this can have on an organization in The Courageous Follower2 by Ira Chaleff.

The survey results bore this out. Not only was the current culture highly Passive/Defensive; the culture at the management levels was even more so. The executive team alone was almost at the 90th percentile for an Avoidance culture. That meant that people were afraid to take risks and avoided situations and opportunities where they might be blamed if something went wrong.

No wonder they could not execute strategy! Everyone was concerned that they would get their head bitten off—especially the managers and executives, who tried to protect their employees from the worst of the CEO’s behavior. And the locations doing the best? Those were small offices with no managers on-site, led by self-managed teams of engineers.

The Memory of an Elephant

I knew that I had a difficult conversation ahead of me. Already the CEO was gunning for the managers whom he felt were not doing their jobs. Looking at the culture maps, he might assume that they were responsible for creating this culture, when in fact, this was the culture they experienced.

I thought hard about how to provide this feedback to the CEO, and screwed up my courage to talk to him about it. “I understand that you have an anger-management problem,” I said, as I anticipated fireworks raining down on my own head. “Oh,” he said very calmly, “I used to.” What? “I have been seeing a therapist for more than two years, and have really come a long way. The last time I had an outburst was over eight months ago. I really don’t do that anymore.”

Well, well. Although his recent behavior might have changed, like an elephant, culture itself has a long memory. People were still waiting for the “next shoe to drop;” managers were protecting themselves and their staff from potential wrath. It would take time to change these expectations. It would also require big doses of openness and vulnerability on the part of the CEO in order to rebuild trust, and courage from the management team to challenge and redirect behavior.

Strengthening Connections

I recommended and helped them hire a full-time internal organizational development consultant for a year-long intensive. That person would assist the organization in embracing more constructive behavior and practices, working not only with the CEO and managers as a coach, but also with employees. They needed to strengthen connections and engagement if the company was going to succeed. The internal consultant implemented two things immediately: 1) one-on-one coaching with the CEO and the members of the executive team; and 2) collaborative work to develop clear project charters that articulated the authorities and limitations of the work team, as a big issue was that teams were often surprised at the end by vetoes of their work or criticism for not having done something that was expected of them (of which they did not know).

The net result? Fifteen years later, this company is still in business, with a strategic niche in the software and services marketplace, and the same CEO is still at the helm!

If you’re thinking about assessing your workplace culture, here’s what I can share:

  1. Don’t do this alone: Find a reputable consultant with experience in assessing and executing culture change.
  2. Assess! You need to take off the “rose-colored glasses” that you may have about your own culture and get information that will really help you change it. A valid and reliable assessment that measures your organization’s culture and benchmarks it against others will give you the information you need to make changes and start down the path.
  3. Involvement: Get your leadership team involved from the get-go. The organization needs to know that all its leaders are on board in order to take the effort seriously.
  4. Allow time: It takes 8 to 15 years on average to reach your ideal culture based on factors of size, geography, and strength of current culture. However, you can make significant progress in just 1-2 years! Set clear “stretch” timelines and allow for detours, but then get the team back on course to its ideal culture. Continue measuring the culture every 2 to 3 years to stay on track.


1Cooke, Robert A. & Lafferty, J. Clayton. (1987). Organizational Culture Inventory. Plymouth, MI: Human Synergistics.

2Chaleff, Ira. (2009). The courageous follower: Standing up to & for our leaders, third edition. San Francisco, CA: Berrett-Koehler.

About the Author

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Catherine M. (Cathy) Perme

Cathy Perme is the owner and principal consultant of C. M. Perme & Associates, LLC, a regional consulting firm located in Minneapolis, MN that engages leaders from CEO to supervisor to act in the face of change. They have been conducting organizational and cultural assessments since 1990, and are adept at identifying key levers for change in an organization. Cathy has been using Human Synergistics’ culture inventories since 1995 and has taught its Culture Workshops for the last five years as an Expert Practitioner. Cathy's new book, Fizz! How to Succeed as an Independent Consultant, is available on Amazon. Her first book, Confucius in my Cubicle: Practical Wisdom for the Leader in All of Us, published in December 2017 is also available on Amazon. Cathy also blogs as The Consultant’s Coach on LinkedIn.