— January 14, 2019
I came across this well-meaning article a few weeks ago. It’s about how to set up and run a corporate culture committee in your organization. Well that sounds swell, doesn’t it? Get some of your bouncy, enthusiastic, engaged Tigger employees, order some muffins and let ‘er rip.
Why, in no time, you’ll be hosting fun BBQs, debating corporate values and getting employee engagement scores into the 40s and 50s. It’ll be like Zappos, only with uglier shoes.
No it won’t.
Show me a company that has delegated culture to a committee, and I willshow you one that has it chained up in the yard without enough food, water or shelter. Do that to a dog, and it’s neglect, do it to your culture and it’s the same thing.
The reason companies like Zappos and Patagonia have excellent corporate cultures is because the CEO understands and acts on the reality that culture is their job. It’s in their job descriptions, and they do it as deliberately as they create the business plan, manage the balance sheet and assuage the shareholders.
The truth is, most CEOs and other executives don’t have culture in their job descriptions. My very scientific research (meaning, a cup of coffee and half an hour looking at CEO job descriptions online) found only two that even mention culture, and in both cases, it was a throw-away line about “maintaining a culture of respect and innovation.”
If culture isn’t in the job description, it likely isn’t on the C-suite agenda. The thing that gets it on the agenda is usually something bad. Like the annual engagement survey results, a nasty lawsuit, an epic product failure, or a congressional hearing. While there is not a CEO in town who wants this on their watch, the usual reaction to the revelation, pubic or otherwise, that the culture sucks, is to delegate it.
Corporate culture and CEOs
Now if there was a giant revenue leak or a scary liability risk or some other existential threat to the business, the CEO would also reach for the Delegate button, but that delegation would look like a very senior executive sponsoring a focused project, probably involving a bunch of external experts and deliberately deployed internal resources.
Yet if the existential threat is a culture that stifles growth, drives away talent, and risks both balance sheet and reputation, the response is to hand it off to a bunch of volunteers. Which means we end up with BBQs, tree plantings, food drives and office mini golf for the United Way. Good things all, but it’s socializing, not culture.
Do you have volunteer sales people? Would your shareholders accept bake sales as a revenue stream? How about volunteer finance folks, who manage cash flow in a Slack group between 8:30 and 9:00 every third Wednesday? Then why is culture, the elemental code around which all work is done, all decisions made considered a volunteer activity?
Certainly, CEOs and their executive teams understand that they own the vision for the place. The CEO is its fiercest advocate. She understands that the mission, which is the “how” of the vision is hers to articulate, model and repeat as many times as necessary. The structure and resources needed to achieve the vision and work the mission similarly come from the top of the house. On a good day, the values that keep the whole endeavour in its lane are defined well and lived fully by the Overlords. Culture must join this list of poo-bah responsibilities.
Corporate culture is not a shrub
Executive job descriptions, when they mention culture at all, suggest it’s about maintaining it, like an unruly Cotoneaster. I submit that culture, while it can’t be manufactured, must be managed. We don’t “maintain” our workforce strategy or our product mix, we manage them deliberately and with great care. We measure their health, we hold very important people accountable and we (I hope) make sure our employees understand how their work contributes to these and other important business goals.
If organizations managed the culture as carefully as the rest of the mission-critical stuff, it becomes a very powerful tool in the form of commonly understood rules about to get things done. A great culture signals how we expect employees to behave and what it looks like to live the values. It guides how our leaders should respond to change and challenge; it gives front-line supervisors a consistent foundation for how they go about the work of their team every single day.
If we can agree, then, that employee satisfaction and productivity do not rise and fall with the number of hot dogs consumed, we can begin to make the case for some proper management of culture. Having it on the CEO’s agenda is a wonderful starting point, but like the rest of those priorities, it needs resources and accountability to manage it properly.
We set aside budget and people to make sure there are new products, compliant operations and client dinners, so we should not reasonably expect culture to be free. We need to give it an owner (no, it can’t be someone’s hobby job), give it a budget, give it some metrics and give it a bit of executive focus. Let the volunteers step up to run the softball league, but don’t confuse it with culture.
Culture drives revenue, productivity, engagement, recruitment, retention, product quality and other great things. Pretending it’s a charity run is both missing a key investment in your brand and sending a strong signal that you really don’t give a toss about your employees.