How the CCO drives culture | Gagen MacDonald

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How the CCO drives culture

Apr 08, 2019

The following insights are from an article by our founder and CEO, Maril Gagen MacDonald, that was originally published on the Arthur W. Page "Page Turner" blog.

I recently published the first in a three-part series of blogs on culture as an ascending focus for the CCO. That piece discussed the forces driving culture as a rising priority for our enterprises and highlighted why it is a focal point for our Page thought leadership. I asked for feedback on that and have already collected thoughts from several colleagues that will be useful as we continue to shape our next Page Society white paper. Please do continue to share your reactions!

In this second post, I explore some of the principles and skills required to shape, lead and drive culture change. I recently presented these principles at the Future Leaders Experience session Tom Martin convened in Charleston and have made several revisions based on the fabulous input of that group.

Our role is bigger than values

Traditionally, many companies have viewed culture as an extension of corporate values and have seen a CCO’s role as primarily expressing and reiterating those values. Over the last several years, more people are recognizing that establishing a culture that creates a true competitive differentiation requires a more sophisticated and holistic approach.

To most effectively shape cultures and drive culture change going forward, CCOs need to expand on their abilities as connectors. Our true power in shaping culture will rest as much in our ability to assemble coalitions and bring emotional intelligence, intuition and investigatory skills to cross-functional partnerships as it will in our ability to craft messages or develop visual and video collateral. There are several practical ways CCOs can most effectively engage.

  • Don’t ask for permission: Culture is one of the unique corporate properties that is "owned" by the entire company and not just one function. Yet, without prompting from the CEO—which may or may not ever occur—leaders can be hesitant to spearhead a comprehensive culture change effort. This often results in ad hoc and misaligned culture change efforts emanating from various parts of an enterprise. As CCOs, we can’t wait for permission to lead change efforts: We have to dive into action. Our job is to demonstrate the power of culture by making it happen.
  • Convene the conversation: Page calls on members of our profession to serve as integrators and collaborators. This is certainly true with respect to culture change, where our ability to make things happen flows naturally from our ability to bring people together. Culture is born from an amalgam of influences, from HR’s performance management system to marketing’s delivery of the "brand" to IT’s hardware and software choices, security practices and virtual collaboration tools to finance’s budgets. Every decision within an organization sends a message. Together, these messages tell the story of an organization’s priorities, goals and expectations. In my presentation to the Future Leaders cohort, Sandy Pound from Johnson & Johnson offered an important insight on convening cross-functional teams: "You don’t want culture to be a communication problem. If we start by bringing together the conversation, then we all own it. That is our unique role. It’s a different way of looking at this."
  • Pinpoint the pain point: Despite stating culture goals frequently and explicitly in numerous ways, CEOs are often surprised when their culture change efforts fail to produce new results. This is because their culture change isn’t likely failing due to a lack of clear communication. It’s failing due to some combination of systems, processes or management behaviors that create roadblocks to new behaviors. For instance, if you want to foster innovation, but employees are penalized for taking time to think and experiment, or failed efforts at experimentation detract from one’s performance evaluation, it’s unlikely you’ll get more innovative results. CCOs must play a more active role in uncovering these kinds of roadblocks.
  • Connect brand and behaviors: Many CEOs today are focused on culture because they recognize that it can drive competitive differentiation and address critical business problems. In this sense, culture and brand are highly intertwined. In a LinkedIn comment to my initial post last week, this was Bill Margaritis’ first reaction: "Culture serves as the connective tissue between brand and reputation. It is the glue that makes everything click. It's hard to have a strong brand if you have a weak or underperforming culture, and, conversely, it's hard to have a strong culture without a strong brand." As CCOs, one of the most powerful ways we can serve our organization is to define how we want external stakeholders to experience our brand, then reverse engineer the behaviors we need employees to exhibit to make that brand a reality. Brand is not a separate entity that exists in a vacuum; it is a manifestation of your culture as experienced by the outer world.
  • Change the reality, not just the perception: Whether it’s a manufacturing floor, a call center or a sea of cubicles, the most powerful way to change a culture is to send a jolt into the organization. Culture change is stimulated more viscerally and emotionally than rationally or intellectually. Regardless of your goals—innovation, customer focus, quality—culture change is most likely to occur if employees are sparked into action, not persuaded. It’s incumbent on the CCO to ensure that culture change efforts are not campaigns but awakenings.
  • Set the context and boost business acumen: In cultures of the future, employees at all levels need to be trusted to make decisions on how to manage operations, invest time and resources, and serve customers. This is going to require that they operate with a dynamic understanding of the forces driving our markets, the needs and wants of our customers, the landscape of our competition, and our plans for differentiation. If we want our people to operate more fluidly and with less adherence to traditional structures, we need to trust them with information that goes beyond the roles and responsibilities spelled out in their job description.
  • Master the metrics: As technology has advanced, our ability to meaningfully, quickly and continually measure culture change has accelerated. We have an unprecedented ability to measure not only perception of culture, but organizational belief, behavior and results. As CCOs, we cannot be passive participants in how our companies measure and evaluate culture, but rather need to be steeped in the tools, methodologies and technologies that are available, and need to lead the dialogue among our peers as to what framework best suits our enterprises.

In your experience driving culture change and based on the conversations playing out in your organizations, do these principles resonate for you? Where do they align or conflict with what you’re seeing? Our hope is to continue to test and refine these ideas at the Page Spring Seminar Culture Peer Discussion, so we welcome your thoughts!

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Culture: An ascending focus for the CCO

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Seven steps to effectively drive culture from the CCO position

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