Do we need a Chief Culture Officer?

By Bryan Adkins Ed.D., CEO, Denison Consulting

At Denison Consulting we are in the Culture business, and so you might expect that we would answer with an unequivocal YES to the question of whether or not you need a Chief Culture Officer. After all, our 20+ years of research have shown quite clearly that culture has a significant impact on company performance. It impacts financial performance, innovation, quality and many other key business indicators. It deserves the utmost attention.

Some argue that it is the CEO’s job to be the “keeper of the culture.”  Others see it as a role that is best managed within HR. Still others say that culture is about the collective way in which people work together, and it cannot be owned by any one person. Yet recently, we have seen the emergence of roles and titles that assign specific responsibility to a senior executive in the form of Chief People & Culture Officer, Culture Evangelist, or Corporate Storyteller. We’ve even come across a “Quarterback of Culture!”  So who is right?

We believe that all are right, though for different reasons.  Ultimately, the culture of an organization is the collective responsibility of employees at every level and in in every role.

One would never suggest that a President or Prime Minister of a country owns or even dictates the culture of the people they lead. The goal is always mass ownership, because ultimately it is the collective behavior and action that makes the culture. There are many successful companies we engage with every day that do not have someone with “culture” in their job title. What they do have is a workforce that is clear and aligned around what they are doing and why; and they are also quite clear about how they are supposed to work together. There are several scenarios in which we have found that having someone with “culture” in their title makes perfect sense.

There are several scenarios in which we have found that having someone with “culture” in their title makes perfect sense.

Let’s take a closer look at some situations where it has proven to be effective.

Sub-par Performance.

Sometimes the work is not getting done nearly as effectively as expected; and making culture explicit in someone’s title can draw attention to the need for better alignment throughout the organization. In such organizations, priorities are unclear, decisions are inconsistent, collaboration is “hit or miss”, and customer needs are often unmet. No one may truly understand why there are so many issues, but they suspect that putting something (culture) that is often invisible and widely distributed “front and center” will create the impetus for change. It often does.

Culture is a Differentiator.

Many organizations see their culture as a competitive advantage and a critical foundation for their brand. When we think of companies such as Southwest Airlines, Google or Marriott, we think about the cultures that differentiate them from others. Their cultures inspire loyalty, both internally and externally, and serve as a source of competitive advantage. Because culture is a key component of the brand, having someone with a title that reflects that importance makes perfect sense. At a recent Denison event, Debbie Marriott-Harrison (granddaughter of J.W. Marriott) who now holds the title of Global Officer of Marriott Culture & Business Councils, noted: “Though many things have changed in our business, our culture and values will never change.”

For Marriott, their culture helps differentiate them from their competition and represents a critical link to a rich and storied history.

Event Inspired.

There are events in time when putting culture top-of-mind can pay dividends. For example, when merging two or more companies together, we have seen great success when there was someone designated to lead the culture integration effort and assure an intentional approach to bringing the companies together.  In one such situation, a role was created and that VP of Culture & Change led a comprehensive approach to aligning the combined organization around a common Vision and Values, making sure that decisions regarding compensation, rewards, performance reviews, leadership principles and a host of other decisions were made with the cultural intentions in mind. The Reynolds American company, formed from a merger between R J Reynolds and Brown & Williamson, is described as a “text book” approach to culture integration, and their VP of Culture & Change, Angie Mannino, stated: “How do you eat an elephant…one bite at a time. We took a thoughtful yet aggressive approach to integrating the cultures, and two years post-merger we were light years ahead of where we started. And our performance exceeded expectations, which is certainly contrary to most M&A stories.”

Putting culture in a title can have negative consequences as well.

For too many, the word “culture” still conjures up images of foosball tables, beer blasts, pet-friendly workplaces and whether people are happy.  You don’t amplify your culture by asking people if they are in a good mood or going the extra mile.  In fact, the next time someone says we track and measure our culture, take a closer look.  What they are most likely measuring is individual engagement, not culture. Both are important, but they are different.  The culture leaders in organizations who confuse the two often become the event planner and social director. Culture is relegated to the “soft stuff.”

A culture leader, regardless of title, must be someone who is holistically looking at the systems, habits and behaviors that reflect how work is getting done and assuring that there is alignment between what is espoused and what is practiced.

Should the CEO be playing that role?  Yes. Does HR have a critical role to play?  Yes. Is it important that employees throughout the organization act as owners of the culture? Yes. Do you need a Chief Culture Officer?  Maybe. Consider the scenarios outlined above and decide if your company would benefit from having a C-level role; and if you are not sure, call us. We look forward to sharing what we’ve seen work.

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