Business Growth & Strategy

A Fish Rots From the Head: A Commentary On Corporate Culture

A Fish Rots From the HeadRecently, a well-respected Chairman and CEO in the financial services industry shared an old saying with me. He said, “A fish rots from the head.” We were speaking about organizational culture at the time and the point he was making is that an organization’s culture originates from the top of the company. Of course, his statement is true, but that’s only a part of the culture puzzle.

The executive leader’s personality, traits and beliefs collectively form a signature that is stamped into the organization’s social fabric. An egalitarian leader is more likely to spawn a culture of equals that is characterized by attributes like: teamwork, innovation, open and transparent communication. Conversely, a command and control top executive that fulfills the role as a dictatorship is more likely to produce a structure of silos and fiefdoms with a corporate culture that is characterized by closed doors, secrecy and fear. The core values of the leader form and shape the organization, and the stronger the leader’s personality – the stronger the impact.

A strong organizational culture is one that is extremely well aligned to a common set of core values, making policy and procedure changes easier to introduce. However, rigidity and groupthink are two risk factors that accompany strong organizational beliefs and corporate dogma. Having a strong culture is certainly preferable to a weak one, but is not entirely the optimal situation.

A healthier model is more performance-centric, striking a balance between the desirable attributes of a strong culture and the equally important ingredients of flexibility and acceptance. A performance-centric organization allows for and promotes diversity in thought and business innovation. Such organizations have developed corporate mores that accept and embrace challenges to the status quo. In such organizations, bureaucracy and groupthink are viewed as the demons of innovation that must be kept in check in order to allow fragile new and game-changing business ideas to survive and one day be implemented.

Research shows that organizations with performance-centric cultures experience better financial growth. One such study, conducted in 2003 by Harvard Business School, reported that culture has a significant impact on an organization’s long-term economic performance. The study examined the management practices at 160 organizations over ten years and found that culture can enhance performance or prove detrimental to performance. Performance-centric organizations witnessed far better financial growth. Another study, conducted in 2002 by the Corporate Leadership Council, found that cultural traits such as risk taking, internal communications, and flexibility are some of the most important drivers of business performance.

Regardless of the top executive’s style, a performance-centric culture can be developed over time. Such cultures possess high levels of employee involvement and strong internal communications, both representing factors within the control of an executive leader and senior management team. Additionally, in order to promote innovation, the executive team must instill an environment of acceptance and encouragement supporting a healthy level of risk-taking. The organization must continue to make an investment in training and employee knowledge development to provide the opportunity for each employee to realize their full potential within the company. In general, to improve performance, the entire management team must focus on industry-specific factors pressuring the business and emphasize those within organizational development.


In conclusion, the organization’s culture is strongly influenced by the top executive as well as the executive management team surrounding the leader. The core values and behaviors demonstrated at the top of the organization will permeate throughout and can create a very strong culture. However, it is not enough to simply build a strong culture, it must be a balanced one, such as the performance-centric model.

To build a performance-centric culture, organizational leaders must instill an acceptance for healthy levels of risk taking and an appreciation for learning, development and diversity of opinion. These factors fuel innovation and help propel stronger long-term financial performance.

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Avatar About the Author: Joe Evans

Since 2006, Joe Evans has been President & CEO of Method Frameworks, one of the world's leading strategy and operational planning management consultancies. The firm provides services for a diverse field of clients, ranging …

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  1. Good article, I have always said that the “personality” of an organization reflected the leader’s values and beliefs.  You have to decide who to work for based as much on leadership than espoused culture.

  2. Jevans

    February 22, 2012 at 8:06 pm

    Diane, thanks for the comment. No doubt, the moral conduct and behaviors of an organization begin with the core values of the
    top executive. – Joe

  3. Kathryn Alexander

    February 25, 2012 at 6:07 pm

    As a Culture Coach I couldn’t agree with you more! My Leadership & Culture assessment ( helps executives see the beliefs and values that inform action. Measures are an excellent way to maintain, but they need to be tightly tied to strategy. ROI and growth are not good substitutes for a future related direction. Alignment occurs when leadership, culture and strategy are all working in the same direction. Great article!

  4. Great article. Sharing stories of the kind of behavior you want modeled in the culture of the company is a terrific strategy to get more of the same. People want to hear from their CEO, and in a way that isn’t totally filtered from the communications team. Sometimes those stories are appropriate for outside consumption…sometimes just for employees to instill those cultural attributes that are desired. Do everything in your power to get those stories told!

  5. A great article. In recent weeks internal culture has climbed to the top of the corporate agenda.  There is an increasing recognition at a senior level that something needs to change – the challenge for many though is knowing how to set about it, it seems too big and they don’t know where to start.  For us at Woodreed the answer is clear and simple – it begins with the brand. We have a proprietary approach to auditing, planning and measuring brands inside businesses which focusses on the key areas of a business where the brand should be leveraged – the areas where it can help to create healthy internal cultures, improving levels of employee engagement.

    You might enjoy The Brand Inside Report which Woodreed have just published – it summarises the results of a survey we undertook earlier this year which looked into the extent to which UK businesses have brand-hearted cultures. Only 29% reported a great culture of people living their values. Not suprising when the survey discovered that while 41% of exec teams ‘live their values’ a worrying 33% pick and choose the ones they like with the remainder either ignoring or treating them as fair weather friends, abandoning them when the going gets tough

    So yes, this must be led from the top.  Firstly in terms of taking the necessary action and making the required investment in time and skills (internal and external) and then secondly in terms of being seen to live the values and not simply pay lip service to the whole thing.

    And does this matter?  Well the obvious debacles at RBS, News International, Goldman Sachs and now spectacularly with Barclays are surely sufficient argument for any sceptical CEO or CFO.  But if further proof were needed we, and other practitioners like us, have evidence coming out of our ears for anyone who is willing to listen.  Watch out too in October as the government backed Engage for Success initiative rolls out. Supported by leading CEOs from leading plcs this will raise this issue even further up the agenda and provide businesses with the skills, proof, case studies and guidance to make positive changes to the way they work.

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