Leverage, The CEO’s Guide to Corporate Culture: A Book Review

“Leverage The CEO’s Guide to Corporate Culture”

A short review of the book written by John Childress

On the front cover, the author sets the scene:


“Few concepts in business contain so many powerful truths, and at the same time so much crap, as corporate culture.” 

Ultra Violet, Tropical water lilies, water lilies for ponds

Ultra Violet, Tropical water lilies, water lilies for ponds

The reviewer uses the Lily Pond Model to describe how culture operates at 3 levels, but put simply, it is  “the way we do things round here.”

Childress gives a more detailed starting point: “the usual way we go about solving business problems, interacting with customers and treating each other.”

How people go about things is crucial to the success of any business. The corporate culture informs what people do and how they do it. For example:

After the explosion and subsequent oil spill from the Deepwater Horizon oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010, BP’s CEO Tony Haywood, had employee deaths and a major environmental disaster on his hands. His reaction reflected the company’s focus on performance and cost control. This ultimately cost him his job, and the company remains well below its previous market capitalisation level.

In contrast, Johnson & Johnson’s handling of the Tylenol pain reliever incident in 1982, when seven people died from cyanide poisoning, was swift and open, with a focus on protecting the safety of the public, whatever the cost. The credo laid out by the original founders and followed by all staff, led to a complete recovery of its market share within a year.

Interestingly, Childress recognises that whilst culture is crucial for a successful company, both circumstance and luck (preparedness meeting opportunity – reviewer’s view) have a real role to play. The two examples above demonstrate this well.

The author has worked in the field for 35 years and the book draws on learnings from this body of work experience. This includes John’s work with senior leadership teams in crisis situations (e.g. GPU Nuclear – owner of the Three Mile Island Nuclear Plants following the accident), deregulated industries (including the breakup of The Bell Telephone Companies), and mergers and acquisitions with global organisations from the Fortune 500 and FTSE 250.

The book is split into eleven sections, covering a lot of thoughts on the definition, history, study, measurement and examples of culture at work. Highlights include:

  1. What are you measuring? If you are looking to measure culture, decide first if you want to do a culture survey or a climate survey – a climate survey measures the current state of staff morale, feelings, etc. A culture assessment will look much more deeply into the characteristics and habitual behaviours
  2. Use coachable moments Every day is filled with coachable moments to help build a strong and aligned culture – never pass up on the opportunity to highlight to colleagues what is and what is not acceptable in your culture (like [not] blaming others)
  3. Live your valuesChildress once attended a congratulatory sales staff conference. The CEO stood up to reward people based on the company values, and the evening’s dinner was supposed to end with a comedian’s show. However, minutes into the performance, it became clear the jokes were more suitable for a stag night. The brave CEO took the microphone away and ended the act – apologising and explaining to the audience that the jokes were not reflective of the company’s values of respect for all, before walking off stage to a standing ovation. This brief act had a far greater influence than any memo or poster on company values
  4. Act rather than just think It is easier to act your way to a new way of thinking, than to think your way to a new way of thinking. Ford’s Halewood plant had the worst quality of production in all of Ford’s factories, with staff sleeping on shift, and militant unions. Childress worked with the Head of Jaguar cars to reinvent the plant, building trust with the unions and management (and letting go of people who didn’t think it would be possible) to make Halewood a worldwide training centre for lean, quality management. The change had come about because of new ways of working and thinking – the high-performance culture was a by-product
  5. Make your culture clear to all Netflix’s powerpoint deck(presentation) was written by the founders in the early days to set out the corporate culture, including things like the company expense policy which is only five words long: “Act in Netflix’s best interests”. The deck is 127 pages long but has been viewed by over 13 million people and was described by Sheryl Sandberg as the most important document to come out of Silicon Valley. Along the way it has been shaped and updated by colleagues, but remains an example of one of the most innovative HR approaches in the world
  6. Don’t create bland meaningless statements While most mission statements are generic and uninspiring, athletic clothing company Lululemon’s is clearly different. Their manifesto includes beliefs such as: Friends are more important than money; Do one thing a day that scares you; The world is changing at such a rapid rate that waiting to implement changes will leave you two steps behind. Do it Now is the message!


This reviewer would add that it is important to ensure the distinction between culture, Vision and Mission. Vision is a present day statement of what the organisation wishes to achieve, in few words that build a picture. The Mission is the next step on the journey (and objectives start to set the material work areas to achieve mission on the way to vision).

As Childress says, a strong culture won’t make up for a poor strategy, and a great strategy can’t be delivered by a weak culture. While there may be no perfect corporate culture, recognising how important culture is, focussing on hiring staff that will strengthen it, and demonstrating your values every day will be critical components of your success.


About the author:

John R. Childress co-founded Senn-Delaney Leadership Consulting Group and has a BA degree (Magna cum Laude) from the University of California, and Masters Degree from Harvard University.

Book Details:

Leverage, The CEO’s Guide to Corporate Culture

By John R. Childress. ISBN: 978-0957517974


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