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.

Connect with Insights from Denison

If you’d like to be kept up to date when we release a new TRANSFORM article or important piece of research, we can notify you so you have immediate access. Yes, please let me know.

We use cookies to give you the best online experience. By agreeing, you accept the use of cookies in accordance with our cookie policy.

Private Equity
As a CEO of a private equity firm, you know that firms with a strong, vibrant culture perform better in a highly competitive marketplace. Denison can work with you to build effective culture in all of your portfolio firms. Our assessment tools enable you to capture a clear picture of your current state. Our consulting expertise supports you in making the changes necessary to achieve superior financial performance. It’s about how you work as a team, how your policies meet practice within the culture of the organization, how performance aligns with your investment criteria.
  • Delivers a consistent assessment of your portfolio companies
  • Gives you an unambiguous picture of the culture
  • Provides a disciplined process and measureable action plan for
  • Offers hands-on strategic consulting to address gaps and affirm best
practices currently being used by your portfolio companies
Our approach:
Financial Services
In the financial sector, you are active in a wide variety of client environments that need to support accountability and the highest ethical standards. The trust that your customer places in your organization is dependent upon the culture that your employees exhibit every day.

You need a clear understanding of how your culture and the people in your organization function within the midst of the complexities of the current financial institutional marketplace. The Denison Model can give you that clarity. From brokerage firms, to retail banking, to institutional banking to insurance, Denison has specific, measurable benchmarking that identifies the strengths and weaknesses of your organization. With this baseline diagnostic, our consulting team can support you to put in place action plans to sustain your high standards and see financial performance improvement.
The manufacturing environment is constantly being tasked with improvement in quality and delivery while maintaining the highest levels of safety. The Denison Model equips you to reach from the senior leadership team to the shop floor in a globally networked manufacturing environment to build a culture oriented to continuous improvement in these mission critical areas.

Through our consultancy services, we work with a broad cross-section of your technical and operational staff to align around the goal of producing the highest quality products in the world--on time and on budget.
Within the healthcare market, high performance is measured primarily in patient outcomes. The marriage of the institution with doctors, support staff and operational teams is key to achieving best-in-class patient outcomes. Denison works with you to achieve these outcomes by building a culture that is tuned to the unique ecosystem of support that patients require.

Our organizational culture assessment based on the Denison Model is a proven approach that has supported healthcare providers with actionable feedback for decades. Against four core drivers of cultural high performance, the assessment identifies what is going well and clarifies challenges you may be facing. Then our consulting team is able to support you in addressing these challenges with action plans tailored to your inclusive and diverse environment.
Case Study
The management of culture in an organization whose members are always on the move.
At Denison, student outcomes are well understood as the goal of every educational organization. Our consulting expertise and diagnostic tools allow your team to more fully understand, articulate and implement your mission. You will gain a collective understanding of your organization’s strengths, weaknesses and challenges benchmarked against other peer institutions, all targeted toward providing students with the best learning environment.

Then, through Action Planning, we will work with you to improve your academic and operational excellence to support the diverse student learning environment of higher education, K-12 schools and related associations.
As a retailer, you know that culture drives the customer experience of your organization. The hospitality, support, and follow-up lived out by your staff all make the difference in each interaction with a consumer. It's that experience that really drives what your behavior should be.

Denison allows you to understand how your organization can support the customer experience. We provide you data that helps you understand your organization all the way through checkout. And we provide sustainable support programs that enable you to address the challenges you face to attract and retain loyal brand customers and to ensure superior financial performance.
Smart restaurant owners know that the patron experience is driven by the culture of their organization. The hospitality, support, and follow-up lived out by your culinary and waitstaff all make the difference in each dish you serve. You know that it is the patron’s needs and expectations that really drive what your team’s behavior should be on the floor.

Denison allows you to understand how your organization is positioned to support the patron experience. We provide you benchmarked data from across the food industry that helps you understand your organization right to the final after-dinner mint. And we provide sustainable support programs that enable you to address the challenges you face to attract and retain loyal brand customers and to ensure superior financial performance.
To achieve high performance in a government initiative requires a different understanding of metrics of success. Typical financial results of business, like sales growth or ROI, are not the KPIs measured here. Rather it is advancement of the mission.

For example, Denison supports military men and women in action through our work with the Defense Logistics Agency (DOA). We provide core culture assessment and an improvement program that helps this department maintain a strong culture to fulfill their mission--addressing everything needed to support fighting men and women in combat through readiness preparation.
Case Study
A transformation that didn’t require thousands of dollars, but a new way of interacting.
Because of the ever-increasing pace in the introduction of new technology and shortening of technology life-cycle, having a culture fluent in adaptability is critical. These factors all drive the need to recoup costs and show profit more and more quickly. Being able to seamlessly change business models to drive market expansion, product acceptance and superior performance is absolutely critical in this high-potential return but volatile market. Talent is also at a premium.

Based on diagnostics structured through the Denison Model, our consultancy team will help you build a culture that knows who it is and who best will fit your organization. With this alignment, you gain a competitive edge in attracting and retaining the engineers, researchers and innovators you need to lead in introducing market-changing innovation.
Whether you deal with business travelers, tourists, or products in the supply chain, safety and schedule reliability are two of the key deliverables. For decades, Denison has worked with leaders in the transportation industry, helping transform organizations in the face of changing markets and technologies, to ensure consumer safety and satisfaction, as well as bottom-line business success.

When you bring Denison on board, our experienced consultants help you make decisions and plans based on data benchmarked against the global industry. We put your organization on the path to high performance, with measurable benefits to your bottom line.