First a story. A hospital system I know well has been struggling with a fractured culture for years. (They are not a current or past client.) Every few years they attempt a new intervention to bring some integrity back into the system. Some of the initiatives have been solid efforts, but, sadly, each of them has failed. In every case, the efforts fail because the senior administrators separate themselves from the effort. Some of the initiatives are ridiculous. The last effort was. They decided to invest in a culture survey. What did the bosses expect? By every measure their workplace culture sucks. Most employees didn’t participate. Those that completed it simply rated the culture poorly. Nothing changed. Conducting a culture survey does not equal doing something about it.
Similarly, hiring a chief culture officer won’t guarantee a healthy workplace culture. Naming a position does not mean anything will change for the better. If the next intervention in the hospital system I described was to promote a chief culture officer, that person would be marginalized by the more powerful managers. Until those alfa managers really care about culture – and care enough to change some fundamental ways of doing things – nothing will improve.
Company culture, by definition, includes everybody in the company and extends to the relationships the enterprise has with the rest of the world. If those relationships are disjointed and fragmented, the culture is dysfunctional. If those relationships and ways of doing things are consistent throughout, then the culture thrives. Employees, including the top managers, must act with coherence for the culture to be healthy.
An article in Huffington Post used examples from Netflix and Southwest Airlines to make a case for a chief culture officer. The problem with these examples is that neither company has a chief culture officer. Chief Talent Officer, Patty McCord, and CEO, Reed Hastings, worked tirelessly on developing the Netflix culture. I have some view into Netflix having facilitated an early company retreat for them and also having talked with Patty recently. I believe McCord would laugh at the idea of naming somebody a chief culture officer. Like everybody else at Netflix, she had job to do: ensure the business had the right people at the right time, and she was responsible for doing it in a way that was consistent with the culture. I don’t have a personal view into Southwest Airlines, but my guess is that their dogged eye on the bottom line would not allow for a chief culture officer, either.
Titles never capture everything a person does. The big risk of naming someone a chief culture officer is that others might assume that culture is no longer part of their own job. A chief culture officer must devise ways to ensure robust culture building practices are in place, just as a chief financial officer must ensure robust financial practices are followed throughout the organization.
A chief culture officer is concerned with this question: How does the ways we do things around here fulfill our promise to the market, to our shareholders, to our community, and to our employees? The chief culture officer is concerned with embedding practices in the organization so that everybody asks this question of themselves and within their teams. If the chief culture officer has the power to influence practices in the top team, then they can help the organization sustain and evolve the business.
Greg Ranstrom is CEO of We, Inc.