A leading pharmaceutical company was struggling to implement a new strategy that placed more emphasis on profitability. The firm had long prided itself on its brilliant research scientists and the culture reflected that: scientists enjoyed a powerful status. As a result, in spite of changes to the organizational structure, the firm’s market-driven strategy faltered. It conflicted with the shared implicit norm that the scientists’ word was law.
“Most organizations face these deep value conflicts,” says Columbia Business School Professor Robert Bontempo, who spent two years helping the pharmaceutical company better align its culture with its strategic imperatives.
A corporate culture that conflicts with strategy is one of the biggest obstacles identified by senior executives in Columbia’s Executive Education programs. Contributing to the problem is the fact that many people believe that corporate culture is impossible to measure and extremely difficult to change. “I’m often amused by how many people say that their firm does not have a culture,” says Bontempo.
To address this issue, Bontempo has developed a cultural tangibility tool that helps organizations define, measure and change the deeply held beliefs and habits that undermine a new strategy. “Once we get people to realize that they have a set of common assumptions about how things get done, we can get them to facilitate the implementation of their strategy,” he says.
To identify and close the “culture gap” between strategy and reality, Bontempo helps organizations make the transition from implicit assumptions to explicit values. He does this by asking people to choose among several seemingly desirable objectives. “One client firm agreed that a high level of customer service was a top priority, but they also wanted a high level of profitability, which was linked to uninterrupted production volumes. On the shop floor, this meant that actual behavior was determined by cultural norms, not organizational policy.”
Another problem area is that many people believe that culture can only be changed very slowly, if at all. Bontempo disagrees. “This is an illusion, because once a culture is changed we forget how dramatic the change was. Five years ago, smoking in public was so common that drinkers would come home with smoke-filled clothes. Now you wouldn't even think of it.” He also points to the early days of Apple, when “John Scully was remarkably effective in transforming the culture from a group of unstructured artists that worshipped creativity into a profit-making machine.”
Bontempo teaches leadership and negotiations courses in the School’s Executive Education programs, which have received a #1 ranking from the Financial Times for three years running. He credits the program with giving him the opportunity to gain expertise in the entire continuum of leadership challenges, from young MBAs leading teams for the first time to mid-career executives making the transition from technical experts to cross-functional leaders, to senior executives charged with articulating and implementing strategy.
Bontempo has taught the cultural tangibility tool to executives from all over the world. He notes that, “While there are always some cultural quirks, colorful cultural specifics, the participants feel that the processes are universal.”
For information on Bontempo’s upcoming Executive Education programs, click on the links below:
Emerging Leadership Development Program, $7,250
March 30–April 4, 2003, Arden House (Harriman, New York)
Professors Robert Bontempo, Rita McGrath, Sheena Iyengar and Howard Berg
Negotiation and Decision-Making Strategies, $2,950
May 8–9, 2003, New York City
Professor Robert Bontempo