Transformation, corporate culture and ballet

“So you’re going to give ballet lessons??”

This is what a French executive asked me in the late eighties. I was trying to convince him to pay attention to his company culture as he thought about how to implement the organization change he had initiated.

I should have answered yes, because when it comes right down to it, aren’t companies constantly trying to find out how to adapt to a more and more unstable stage in a more and more agile way?

Culture is about people and corporate culture, as many studies have shown, is the fly in the ointment that thwarts the well-wrought plans for post acquisition integration and transformation projects. Because (and who didn’t know that?!) when it comes right down to it, change is about people, not just about machines and organization.

Culture is what makes a group special and creates a sense of belonging. It’s the source of company energy and effectiveness. If companies like Michelin, IBM, Apple, General Electric, BNP Paribas, Toyota, Essilor or Airbus are what they are today, it’s thanks to their culture.

After all, it’s people who move things forward, sometimes very fast, or who block them, sometimes very violently.

It’s strange how people always say that
the human side of things is “soft”
and systems and machines are “hard”.
But our experience shows it’s quite the contrary!

ICM was born out of this realization and very early on we were looking at issues of national cultures and corporate cultures, at business cultures and functional cultures—in sum, at all the levels of this mysterious kaleidoscope that we need to understand if we want to manage it.

Of course today it’s pretty much a platitude: corporate culture is recognized as being a key element of change, engagement, trust and performance in our global, digital, radically changing world.


ICM and culture

ICM has always considered that culture is a complex composite. The three most important dimensions on which we have systematically based our diagnostics are:

Understand the culture of the line of business: Industrial butchery doesn’t have much in common with the cosmetic industry, or with oil exploration, and all are different from pharma. Each develops its own business-driven characteristics and values that are linked to their individual social and technical constraints as well as to the basic know-how and tempo of their activities.

Get to know the founders. They stay behind the door for a long, long time. As do the convictions they incarnated and put into practice to grow their business, ensure its survival and write its unique story. If you compare the biographies of Thomas J. Watson—who, as early as 1911 started IBM and made it into the industrial giant it is today—with that of Steve Jobs, co- founder of Apple, you understand pretty well how these companies developed such two different corporate cultures (and why their logos are so different!).

Understand the culture of the country of origin: Even though they are international, the leadership and management style of large groups often reflect characteristics linked to their cultural origin. Think about this: the Chinese CEO of a European engineering company that had recently been acquired by a large Chinese group asked me: “Is it really normal that all these managers ask all these questions during meetings?” No Westerner would ever have asked me that. And who hasn’t heard comments like “OK, but that company has remained so French (or American, or German, etc).

When companies are in crisis, going back to these three factors will help explain reactions, decisions and behaviors within companies. There are also others such as the dominant religion, the local family system, the educational system or the job functions. But in our experience they carry less weight.


Culture and Change

We know that culture change is never straightforward and fast. All the “ways of doing things” that have developed over time and filtered down through the collective unconscious cannot be replaced with something new, more efficient, with more hype or even cheaper (since cost reductions are such a concern) like we dis-install and then reinstall software.

Corporate cultures, coming from way back as they do, embody the convictions, beliefs or principles (some would say values) that fashion how a company respond to four questions:

How do we:

  • Survive in a merciless world?
  • Develop despite aggressive competition?
  • Stand out and beat out our competitors?
  • Create a harmonious, energized and interdependent community?

Culture underlies how a company answers these questions. Culture underpins the definition of the corporate mission, strategic options, the organization structure, systems, human relationships, decisions and choices made by the leadership and managers. That’s how the corporate culture slowly crystallizes into a something that is difficult to articulate, even for those live it, for it has become second nature.

And so, when companies face totally new situations and profound changes in their environment, we have to dig for this body of beliefs deep in the corporate unconscious in order to articulate, analyze and reshape them. In that way the organization can keep what needs to be kept, let go of what has become obsolete and invent what’s needed to meet the challenges of the future.

We are passionate about this journey. And we have developed methodologies to accompany our clients if they chose to engage on the ambitious path of self-renewal.




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