Who’s in Charge of Culture?

I saw some interesting questions regarding corporate culture on an online forum this past week. Those questions prompted this post.

The writer believes that corporate culture doesn’t exist – therefore it cannot impact employee behavior, performance, or work passion. My experience doesn’t bear this out, and I don’t feel bound to engage in debate or attempt to change his mind. (NOTE: I have no idea the gender of the writer. For simplicity’s sake, let’s assume the writer is male.) I’m not a great debater, and I’d NOT have a willing listener in that conversation.

Yet the questions posed are good ones for a “culture refinement expert” like me to address. We consultants deal with skeptics all the time. The way “into skeptic hearts” is to listen and understand their point of view, share your plan, and let the results speak for themselves.

Let’s examine the writer’s questions and assumptions. My answers come from my own experience at Blanchard, helping clients refine their cultures for the last 14 years. In addition, numerous studies have proven the positive impact of culture on performance – see this study for a great overview of key culture research or this one on the power of culture in Japanese companies. And, authors like Margaret Wheatley and Jim Collins have demonstrated the hard dollar impact of corporate culture.

Who is in Charge of Culture?

The writer asked, “Who is paid to manage an organization’s culture?” The writer’s assumption is that no one is formally paid or has the assigned role to manage culture. We can cite examples of culture officers like Susan Schor at Eileen Fischer, Gary Steuer with the City of Philadelphia, and Stacy Savides Sullivan at Google. AND, the best answer is that senior leaders are paid to manage their organization’s culture. Their job is to ensure consistent performance for the benefit of a “triumvirate”: customers, employees, and stakeholders. If they don’t create a culture that supports efficiency, innovation, high performance, and employee engagement, they won’t satisfy that triumvirate.

How do you know the Positive Impact was due to Culture Change?

Our clients are the best people to answer this question. Senior leaders who experience our culture process believe that culture is the primary driver of the results they’ve seen. Results of our culture change process include:

  • ASDA, a UK grocery chain, was selected as the top employer of choice by a Sunday Times survey. Sales and profits outperformed the entire retail sector over a two-year span.
  • Banta Catalog saw profits increase 36%, employee engagement increase 20% in six months, and retention increased 17% over a two year period.
  • Foodstuffs Auckland (New Zealand) found ROI on their culture project exceeded $600,000 within the first year. Turnover fell 28% while out-of-stock reduction of 1% resulted in $100,000 of additional profit.

Culture Change is Dangerous to One’s Career

The writer stated that any person leading organizational change will lose their job. They weren’t “at risk,” they’d lose their job.

I understand how someone might come to that conclusion. Often senior leaders who embrace the positive power of culture find themselves in organizations that don’t support this world view. They may choose to leave, to go find a more values-aligned organization. Or, they may be forced out, often because their department or division culture (despite it’s successes) is very different from the parent organization’s culture.

These scenarios do occur, yet more often we see culture champions celebrated because of the positive impact of culture refinement on the business.

I am delighted every time I help a “culture skeptic” understand the power of culture, of values alignment, in a workplace to increase revenue, profits, employee work passion, and positive customer experiences.

What are your assumptions about culture change?


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  • Great post, Chris. Where I differ with you is that I don’t think you can “manage” culture in the way that you manage other things. Leaders will influence the culture, through countless decisions about what should be rewarded and who should be promoted and by the stories they tell about the organization, but it’s a process of influence, not one of management.

    • Thanks for your insights, Wally. We do differ on that key point. We teach senior leaders to proactively manage culture, and it’s worked very well.

      In the early stages of this process’s creation, we knew we had to make culture real, observable, and tangible. The way we did that was with valued behaviors. When senior leaders make performance expectations clear and assertively hold staff accountable for those, performance improves. This second dimension, of values and defined behaviors, enables senior leaders to do the exact same thing: make valued behaviors clear and assertively hold staff accountable for those. When that happens, trust, respect, and discretionary energy increase.

      Senior leaders must influence the culture indirectly, as you describe, but a more intentional culture, proactively managed, creates a high performing, values aligned culture.

      Cheers!

      C.

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