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Book Review: ‘The Critical Few’ by John Katzenbach, Gretchen Anderson and James Thomas

We’ve all heard that adage, Culture eats strategy for breakfast, coined by management guru Peter Drucker and repeated, it seems, everywhere. Translation: if your culture is poor, your strategy won’t succeed, and if your culture is empowering, it will drive your strategy to success. That’s why The Critical Few: Energize Your Company’s Culture by Choosing What Really Matters ,by John Katzenbach, Gretchen Anderson and James Thomas (Berrett-Koehler Publishers, January, 2019) is a welcome addition to the recent crop of business books.

Buzzy phrases aside, culture matters. And organizations are constantly on the lookout for pragmatic solutions to the ever-pressing need to improve theirs. But the last thing an organization needs are airy gimmicks that promise to transform its culture into an amazing utopia of employee engagement, or the like. Written by a seasoned team of experts — Katzenbach is the founder of the Katzenbach Center and Anderson and Thomas are his colleques, it offers promising, practical, and well considered solutions.

The Katzenbach Center (now part of PWC) is global strategic consultant with a proven track record of helping scores of corporate clients and leaders. The book aims to extend its decades of experience advising organizations on strategy and culture to a larger audience. It takes a smart, common-sense approach, straightening out some of the misconceptions surrounding culture, and offering effective strategies for putting culture to work. To do so it uses an interesting device: conversations with a fictional CEO of a fictional company with very real problems.

Having worked so closely with countless leaders in the corporate world, the authors created the mythical, “newly minted” CEO named Alex as a discreet stand-in that doesn’t betray their clients. Alex wants to improve the culture at his company, the fictitious Intrepid Corporation, but faces a number of hurdles. Every chapter begins with a conversation between this CEO and Katzenbach — and undoubtedly, there will be much that rings true for the reader. While you’re not going to find Alex or Intrepid in a Forbes list of up-and-comers, he and Intrepid are a telling composite of many real-life leaders and their companies.

Alex wants to get his people to shift their own beliefs regarding the company, their thinking about their own work, and their behaviors. His goal is to change mindsets and improve long-term performance — not exactly an unusual objective these days. But each “conversation” between Alex and Katzenbech explores a different aspect of this overall goal, accurately reflecting not only the systemic but also the emotional challenges facing cultural change. Following each conversation is a very practical discussion of how to apply the right strategies.

As Alex and the reader come to learn, successful cultures require three key ingredients — what the authors call the “critical few”:

traits — or the characteristics at the heart of people’s emotional connection to what they do;

keystone behaviors — those actions that would lead your company to succeed if they were replicated at a greater scale;

and authentic informal leaders — who are the people in the organization who possess a greater degree of “emotional intuition” or social connectedness.

The authors explain that the secret to cultural transformation rests directly on these ingredients — not because they’re complex, but because they’re actually quite simple, and reflect human nature. As they write, “A sharp focus on these critical few elements reduces complexity and begets a positive, informal, and lasting cultural impact on performance.

This approach takes the emotional dimension of human behavior into account and exploits the power of simplicity. It amplifies community connections because it encourages the workforce to look to peers and colleagues for insight, support, and encouragement. When people you trust and admire model and enable a few key behaviors and help others do the same (and feel good about it!), those behaviors spread quickly, and they stick.”

Packed with helpful graphs, charts, and references to real corporations — often models of company culture, such as Google, The Critical Few makes a convincing argument for focusing on culture at a basic level, and learning how to tap into the power of human nature. “Complexity is distracting,” the authors write, encouraging leaders to avoid the sort of methodologies that address culture as a multi-faceted, complex series of initiatives, rather than getting to the heart of the matter.

The Katzenbach Center has conducted a great deal of research on the nature of company culture, including a recent global study that found that “71 percent of CEOs or board members believe that culture is a high priority for leadership.” For those leaders as well as any reader involved in the workings of an enterprise, from small to giant, this would certainly be a valuable book to read.

For more information, visit the Katzenbach Center’swebsite.

About Patricia Gale

Patricia Gale has written and ghostwritten hundreds of blogs and articles that have appeared on sites such as Psychology Today, Forbes, and Huffington Post, and in countless national newspapers and magazines. Her "beat" is health, business, career, self-help, parenting, and relationships.

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