Chief Culture Officer goes all Portuguese

Helena Oliveira (pictured) was kind enough to interview me for the Portuguese magazine VER.

If your Portuguese is a little rusty, here’s the interview in English.

Helena Oliveira: What is a CCO and why does the organizational world needs one?

Grant McCracken: A CCO is the senior manager in charge of reading culture outside the corporation in order to spot the revenue opportunities and the dangers it represents.

How can we convince the C-Suit that cultural insights are valuable to the modern business and especially for their own companies?

In the book I cover lots of examples of how corporation found opportunity by reading culture, and crafting products and services that speak to culture.  Nike, Starbucks, Unilever, Coca-Cola, HBO, Method, and Disney are compelling cases in point.  I also look at Quaker, Best Buy, Levi-Strauss, PepsiCo and General Motors.  In each of these cases, the corporation failed to see how culture was changing and how they were sliding out of touch. The collective penalty for the failure of the first three corporations: $ 3 billion.   (My apologies for how US centric these examples are.  I wrote the book in a great hurry and worked from the examples I had at hand.  For the follow up, I hope to work in European examples.  I hope your readers will let me know what European examples, good and bad, I could use.) 

Cultural characteristics are very difficult to change. What are your main advices to transform a “dead or a ill company” into a living breathing corporation?

They are hard to change.  But I think the more responsive they become to the culture outside the corporation they more lively and responsive they become, and they more fun they are as a place to work.  We all know a lot about culture.  It might be movies, music, sports, or television shows.  It’s time to put this knowledge to work for the corporation.   it’s time to share it with one another.  It’s time to use “the whole self” when we come to work.

Should a CCO start his job looking to the inside culture of a company and then adapt it to the outside one or are the cultural trends of the outer world the first to be analyzed?

There’s no reason we can’t do both.  But my preference is to find out what knowledge people inside the corporation have of the culture out there and then figure out how to fill the gaps. 

What are the main tools a CCO should have?

We want to cast the net wide.  We need to know what’s happening in the film world, mainstream, indie, local and global.   We need to know what is happening in culture at the margin and the mainstream.  I am hoping that companies will build a “big board” that identifies and tracks the trends and shifts that matter.  So that at any given moment the C-Suite can say “here are the three big opportunities and three dangers out there now.  This is when we think they will reach our markets.  Here are the innovations we have ready when they do.”  it’s a little like weather forecasting.  (As in, “This is when we think this high pressure zone will reach us.”)  Except in the culture case, we can do something about it.

Who are the most “qualified” persons to take charge as CCO? Do you really think that this is an opportunity to create a new career for Humanities and Social Sciences grads? (I wish J)

I think we will find unexpected people rise to the occasion.  There are Gen Xers and Gen Yers who are ready to go.  They have deep knowledge of culture and only need to fill in the gaps in their business training and cultural knowledge.  I think the agency and strategy world will produce some interesting players.  They need only get their analytics out of the “black box” in which agencies tend now to keep them.  I think the world of journalism and publishing will produce some great candidates.  Every great editor is already playing CCO for his or her readers.  I wonder if people in the entertainment business may step up: agents, producers, and actors are often great readers of culture.  They only need to cast the net wider.  With some supplementary training, CMOs are ready to go.

You mention that the business schools must be reinvented? How?

As it stands, business schools pretty much ignore culture.  At least the American ones do.  I would be very interested to hear what is happening in Europe on this question.  It is a huge opportunity for a business school to take the lead here.  Culture is the next new “white space” or “blue ocean” for the business world.  When I was teaching at the Harvard Business School, (then) Dean Clark used to say that what kept him up at night was the possibility that a school “out there” would challenge HBS’s position with some innovation he couldn’t anticipate.  I think he thought the challenge would probably be a disruption of a technological nature.  But it could just as easily be a shift to culture.  And with all due respect to my former employer, this is a change HBS may not see coming. 

What are the main problems you see in the modern business world?

I think we are too much dominated by the assumptions of economics.  We see customers and consumers as engaged in narrow pursuit of interest and ourselves as the suppliers of value narrowly defined.  I like the way AG Lafley, chairman of CEO, has asked us to broaden our perspective, to dolly back to a bigger picture, and see that consumers are shaped by forces larger than interest narrowly defined.  (See p. 36 of his book The Game Changers.)  They are creatures who live in culture, who consumer culture, who produce culture.  They are living and breathing in this respect as well.  Time for the corporation to cultivate a bigger picture of how we create value.

You’ve “elected” Steve Jobs as a great CCO, although he’s quite known as a “difficult” person. (I’m also a big fan of Jobs and he’s undoubtedly one of the great leaders of the last decade). My question is: what is the “responsibility” of a CEO in shaping the culture of an organization? And what other well-known CEOs would you point as great CCOs?

Steve Jobs is a great leader.  But he’s also a guru who doesn’t let us know the method of his genius.  Too often the corporation depends on a guru who insists that we trust their intuition, their creative genius.  Certainly we want them to share this intuitive and we are grateful for their genius, but a CCO would help us “reverse engineer” some of this inspiration so that we can subject it to scrutiny, so that the investment markets can have a look and make their bets accordingly.  “Just trust me” is not a perfect approach to building investor confidence. 

I remember that maybe a decade ago Jack Welch was celebrated as one of the great leaders ever and GE’s culture was also a sort of a business case study. What are the main differences – in cultural terms – you’ve identified in organizations during your career?

Corporations have been saying the “consumer is king” since 1912.  And most "b to c" operations are more or less attentive to who the consumer is and what the consumer wants.  The fact of the matter is that this consumer exists on a great ice flow called culture, a vast body of meanings and rules that make their worlds, their tastes and their preferences make sense.  It’s time we had a systematic understanding of what this is.

Organizations are also facing some cultural complexities between the Xrs, Yrs and the “net generation”, or the “grown up digitals” as Don Tapscott puts it. How should these different generations “behave” for the good of the company?

I think each of these generations has its strengths and its passions when it comes to reading and acting on culture.  As it stands, the corporation is very often run by boomers who sometimes suppose that their culture is everyone’s culture.  The example I use here is that until recently Mercedes use Richard Thomas as the voice over for TV spots.  This guy is famous, his voice is known, because he starred in a TV show called The Walton’s which ended in 1980.  Half the world has no idea who he is.  It’s time for the corporation to reach out and take advantage of the cultural intelligence it has on tap.  When the CEO of Best Buy discovered that he had lost an investment of $700 million dollars he said, something like, every kid working for me on the floor of Best Buy knew this was a bad bet.  How come the C-Suite didn’t get the memo?

Please define the difference between “fast” and “slow” culture and dispersive/convergent  ones.

Fast culture is all the fad, fashion and trend that pours through our culture at any given moment.  Slow culture are the deeper foundations, the cultural meanings and rules that change more slowly.  Trend hunters and cool hunters tend to focus exclusive on fast culture.  The corporation also needs to know about slow culture

Ours in increasingly a dispersive culture.  We have more definitions of what it is to be a husband, an employee, a manager, a man, a celebrity, a leader.  That’s just who we are.  We are fantastically inventive and more and more tolerant (and sometimes embracing) of the variety that results.  In Canada, we have a favorite image for chaotic situations.  We refer to a “mounted policeman riding off in all directions at once.”  That’s our culture now.  We are riding off in all directions at once.  Happily, there are also convergent moments, moments when we arrive upon a fleeting consensus about a share approach.  In the 60s, at least in the North American case, there was a shared counter culture.  In the 8os, the convergence was the preppie thing.  In the 90s it was the alternative thing.  At any given moment we are shaped by both our divergence and our present convergence.


See Helena’s translation in Ver here.