Business Culture (& CBI syndrome)

Business Culture (& CBI syndrome)

Nobody rejoices when an organisation as important as the Confederation of British Industries stumbles and falls. Any leaders who don’t say “There but for the grace of God, go I” are deluding themselves, regardless of their personal standards. Highly intelligent people who apply their brains to the world’s problems through a pandemic, a near-nuclear war, a mounting climate crisis and a horizon-visible financial disaster are under huge pressure. The miracle is how many survive. The tragedies are about those who don’t.

Each group of people, each family, each country, each organisation has its own culture. If there is one identifiable, reasonably strong leader it will likely be his or hers. If the organisation is led by a small group or cabal, it will be theirs. On three occasions in my career I was charged with, and responsible for, helping to create or change, the culture of an organisation other than my own company. I thought a brief thumbnail outline might interest you.

Number of employees in each business was (a) 450, (b) 145,000 and (c) 10,000. 

In the first and smallest of the three companies, an advertising agency, the change needed was from introspective, serious alcoholism to outward looking selling. 

In the second and largest, the RHM Group, from traditional hierarchical command (with obedience as the criterion of success) to modern, creative, participative management. 

The third business was Cerebos Pacific, a subsidiary of RHM which I built based in Asia-Pacific and IPO’d in Singapore. I had almost total control over the culture of this business. 

My rating of success of the business in each of these cases is 

(a) 80%, with me aged 30 to 37; seen as young, brash; successful.

(b) 45%, with me aged 37 – 47; modestly successful with ⅔ of the business; failed with ⅓ of it. 

(c) 95%, aged 47- 58; regarded as a Lucky General; had a helpful boss, competitive peers.

My rating of my personal success in each of these is 

(a) 85% – too much. It threatened peers and superiors and lost me my job.

(b) 55% – sometimes too much; occasionally same as (a). Once I stagnated for three years.

Seen as an ambitious pain in the neck but just about worth keeping – on balance.

(c) 95% – good as I could hope for. Was very fortunate with an exceptional team.

My reason for giving these (my view) facts is to show that the culture of the business was a key element in the extent to which I did or did not succeed. I realised the cultural factor early on but could only articulate it around the age of forty. For my age group, the forties seemed to be a critical time. Today the two most critical age groups are probably the twenties and the fifties. I’m hoping the nineties will also qualify soon.

Business Culture grows like an All-embracing Flowering Wisteria or a Creeping Toxicodendron Poison Ivy. Both start little, as tiny spores, barely visible – couldn’t harm a fly. Making a fuss about them would be nit-picking, trivial, procedural. There seems to be no point at which STOP or GO are viable decisions. Strategy is lost in the mists of doing; tactics are repeating the same process while expecting different results.

As with most things in life, knowing where you are heading – and why – is helpful. Alphabet, Microsoft, Rolls Royce, Unilever, Boeing, Credit Suisse, Goldman Sachs, Disney, mighty companies with fantastic pedigrees, all slipped, or are slipping, for cutting the culture curve too fine. More MNCs fall into the same trap. Myriads of SMEs do, too, in the mistaken belief that they don’t have time to plan. They do when the receivers move in.

The companies from which I learnt about business culture were mostly clients, in my advertising days, or employers when I joined the RHM Group. All made impressions on me but two in particular are worth specific mentions. They were the Bovril / Marmite Group and Black & Decker. I’ll save the stories of their impact on my Cultural Education for another Daily Paradox.

For now, suffice it to say that strength and discipline rightly always emerge as the foundations of success. 

But not, usually, as the bonus cherries on the top of the cake.

When your cake is baked, move carefully. This is its moment of glory.

Or not.

Good morning

John Bittleston 

How well baked is your cake? Is it ‘cherry time’? would love to know

21 May 2023