Culture inside and outside the corporation (The two faces of of the Chief Culture Officer)

This week I took part in a #TChat on employee engagement and specifically onboarding. (Thanks to Marla Gottschalk for including me.) I found myself arguing that onboarding should introduce new hires to the deep culture of the organization, the one that is buried in assumptions and largely hidden from view. Meghan M. Biro, a founder of TChat, invited me to “break it down.” Here goes.

The corporate culture is a complicated culture. It gets reshaped every time a new leader storms the C-suite. (Marissa Mayer is transforming Yahoo now.) It is changed by a succession the managerial models (“reengineering!”) and buzzwords (“tipping point!”). McKinsey and various other consultants introduce new ideas. Mergers and acquisitions bring in new ways of seeing and doing. The average corporate culture is a crowded house, an accumulation of ideas and practices.

And it would be one thing if these ideas and practices were explicit and obvious and sat like a simple “subroutine” in the corporate code, there to be plucked cleanly out when we wanted to change things. But of course, these ideas live cheek by jowl in an unexamined mass. I can’t remember ever hearing someone say, “Oh, ok, now that we’re moving to this idea, let’s root out the old one.”

No, we muddle through, assuming, apparently, that old ideas will expire on their own, or leave in disgrace. But of course they persevere. Every so often someone will break one out during a committee meeting and we all silently think, “Welcome, old friend.” More often, they serve as an assumption we resort to “when things get complicated.” The trouble is, they have a way of making things still more complicated. After all, the ideas that works for one person or group often contradicts and wrong-foots the rest of us. You’re thinking one thing. I’m thinking another. Key projects end up as “ships passing.”

Good luck onboarding a new hire. A handbook may capture the most recent, the most explicit, and the most formal of the ideas and values that govern the culture, but that teeming mass of additional ideas it tends to leave out. It will take weeks, sometimes months for the new hire to glimpse all the ideas at work in the corporate culture and the rules that govern when and by whom they’re used. Time wasted. Value squandered. And sometimes a lost hire. 

Who is responsible for this complicated culture? We have a COO for operations, a CMO for marketing, a CFO for finance. Why not a CCO, a Chief Culture Officer, for culture? As the party who grasps the welter of ideas that inform and animate the corporation, the CCO becomes a critical agent, an intervening angel. She can step in and say to two warring departments and say, “actually, you’re both right. You, department X, are using ideas that came to use from a talk Tom Peters gave here in 2005. And you, department Y, appear to be holding to the managerial mandate we got two years later when McKinsey came in. Here’s the Rosetta stone, the translation table, that sorts this out. Ok, begin again.”

Crisis management aside, the CCO can be there at the moment of creation, inventing the culture of the corporation, auditioning new ideas, integrating them with older ideas, helping clarify the mission, values and purpose of the organization. The CCO now fashions these not only as a grand statement for the annual report but as a work-a-day understanding that helps the organization day all the time.

In effect, this CCO would act as an organizing intelligence, a problem solver, a diplomatic officer, someone who can intervene when a team struggles to define its problem and its solutions. Corporations have always been complicated, but now as they learn to speak to complexity with complexity, things can get very murky very fast. A CCO, acting as an angelic intervention, would be extremely useful. “Ah, yes,” people say after a visit from the CCO, “that’s what we’re for, that’s who we are. Let’s start again.”

This is a grand calling, but I don’t think it exhausts the responsibility of the CCO. I think the corporation should ask the Chief Culture Officer to monitor and master the culture outside the corporation. And by “culture” here I mean, the cultural meanings and social rules that make up American life. When we know these meanings and rules, we negotiate daily life without a hitch. If we don’t know, life turns into a series of mysteries and frustrations. (Try ordering a cup of coffee in the Middle East and see what it’s like not to know the meanings and the rules.)

I recently gave a speech for a large, very serious federal bureaucracy. They wanted me to talk about culture in particular and Culturematics in particular, but I couldn’t for the life of me figure out why. Waiting back stage, preparing to go on, I turned to my handler and said, “What am I doing here? Why do they care about culture?” The reply was illuminating. “They keep losing their new employees. They work hard to find the right hires. But the kids come in and after a couple of weeks, they ask your question, ‘What I am doing here’ and leave.”

There will be several ways the CCO can address the issue of employee engagement but one is to use culture to craft a new connection with the hire. We can ask employees to serve as part of the intelligence net with which the corporation (or bureaucracy) keeps track of changes in the world “out there.” And now we have engaged them in something they care about. We have tapped their magnificent knowledge of popular culture. We can listen to them as they listen to one another and the world. They are now our eyes and ears. With this gesture, we honor the whole of the employee, and not the narrow part they bring to work each morning.

It is one of the peculiarities of capitalism that it has asked people to leave their other selves at the door. Someone may have a haircut that shouts “I have a life outside this place,” but we don’t want to know. Traditionally, the response has been, “We don’t know what you do on your own time and we don’t want to know. Just do your job. Everything extraneous to “job performance” is precisely that, extraneous. At best a distraction. A worst, a sign of disloyalty!” When that guy from fulfillment wanders into the cafeteria, someone asks with a small note of horror, “What do you suppose Karl does in his spare time?”

As it turns out, on the weekend Karl becomes a formidable competitor in the gaming world, when he is not working on his Anime collection. Now, there was a time when it truly didn’t matter what Karl did with his free time, but these days, the corporation wants to keep an eye on the entire waterfront of contemporary culture, especially the world of gaming. If the corporation has anything to do with entertainment, marketing or innovation, a working knowledge is essential.

Karl has a working knowledge. And he would be thrilled to be asked. He would be honored to do a brown bag lunch with other members of the organization, swapping stories, comparing notes, mapping out what they know about our culture. The organization is filled with Karls. And between them, they can map a lot of American culture. For some reason, we now ignore our Karls. I was talking to Tom Guarriello about this the other day, and he just shook his head. “When was the last time the corporation left this much value sitting on the table?”

What the corporation needs is someone who fully grasps the corporate culture inside the corporation, someone who can make this knowledge more supple, more available, more strategic and more tactical than it is now. And it needs someone who knows about culture “out there in the world.” What the corporation needs is a Chief Culture Officer.

Or so it seems to me. I welcome thoughts and comments from the HR community. I can only really to speak to “culture outside” and I welcome the chance to work with people who know about “culture inside” the corporation.

Please leave a comment below, or feel free to send me a note at grant27@gmail.com.

References

Baribeau, Paul. 2012. 5 ways to become the Chief Culture Officer.  Workplace Tribes. August 23.  Click here.  

Biro, Meghan M. 2012. Time for a new leader in the C-Suite. Forbes. Aug. 13. Click here.

Biro, Meghan M. 2012. Workplace culture leaders humanize the onboarding process. Forbes. August 22. Click here.

Collins, David. 2000. Management Fads and Buzzwords: Critical-Practical Perspectives. Routledge.

Lambert, Avi. 2012. Chief Culture Officer. Squidoo. Click here.

McCracken, Grant. 2011. Chief Culture Officer. Basic Books. Click here.

McCracken, Grant. 2012. Culturematic. Boston: Harvard Business Review Press.
Click here.

Acknowledgements

Special thanks to Meghan M. Biro and Avi Lambert who encouraged me to participate in the #TChat and for the conversation that followed.  Thanks to Tim Sullivan and Tom Guarriello for several discussions on the theme.

Explanations

The image is an “umbraculo” in Barcelona.  I like a wall that lets the inside out and outside in.  

13 thoughts on “Culture inside and outside the corporation (The two faces of of the Chief Culture Officer)”

  1. An excellent (as always) post, but why is it that company cultures seem to develop so differently from cultures of other moderately-sized, voluntary human groups? Outside of companies, are there groups who periodically suffer from dysfunctional clashes of internal cultures? Any other groups in which the leadership implements such frequent and drastic changes? Indeed, could it be as a result of a cavalcade of leaders (who are also highly autocratic by the standards of most other groups), each with their own ideas about company culture, that many of today’s big companies end up being so culturally infirm? Or perhaps (relatively) rapidly-changing leadership and (relatively) rapidly changing rank-and-file (so no one really feels they have much of a stake)? Could a view that culture is something to have and to manage (top-down) rather than something that emerges and evolves through everyday choices be unhealthy in the long run? Look at something like Toyota, or The Economist, or Google, for instance. Culture for them seems to be more of an output than an input – a rallying of similarly minded people against the same challenges, and under the same flag.

    1. Aepxc, good questions all. And yes, the top-down model is now in peril. As is the citadel model, the one that puts big boundaries between the organization and the outside. On the other hand, asking emergence to create consensus, especially now that we are so various, is asking for a tower of babel when what we need is a lingua franca. Thanks goodness for HR! Best, Grant

  2. Re: aexpc’s question on other groups that have dysfunctional clashes of internal cultures and where the leadership implements radical changes, I would submit religious groups and the Vatican. The reason there are so many sects and branches of established religions is precisely because large groups of people develop their own perspectives on the One True Way of doing things, and then split off.

    Another example is large families – we all know of families that have split off from the main group (we often call them black sheep) because they wouldn’t accept the prevailing culture of how to do things.

    The difference between those examples and companies is that they just split off as they are in some ways more independent than groups within a company. In Silicon Valley, there is a tradition of like-minded engineers splitting off to pursue their own ideas, but it’s more difficult than that in many environments. For instance, sales can’t split off on its own, nor marketing or engineers – so the middle management layers of companies are a battleground between these competing visions and cultures as to how the company should prioritize.

    Grant, great post as always. I’ve been at Google four years, and I’m still mapping out the “culture inside”, let alone trying to figure out how to overlay that on the “culture outside”. I suspect this is a challenge that could occupy me for the rest of my career.

    1. Eric, thanks for the great observation. I wonder whether new, distributed models of the organization would allow for splitting off even as the splitees remain part of the larger whole. Well, I think we talked about a model like this in NYC once. And, yes, if the connective tissue is middle management, that’s a special challenge. I wish Google would make you the CCO working in tandem with that present CCO. Thanks, Grant

  3. I think you’ve done an absolutely brilliant job of integrating what I had previously assumed to be two necessarily separate approaches to company culture. And I’m honoured to be listed as a reference!

  4. Excellent observations, Grant.

    There’s a lot to say about them but I start here: the relationship between the individual and the corporation is undergoing enormous changes. One example I see is the “BYOD” (Bring Your Own Device) trend. Employees are now encouraged to bring to work the devices they are most comfortable using.

    Revolutionary!

    In previous incarnations of the corporation, this was heresy; practically cause for summary disbarment!

    Now, however, the corporation is saying, “We understand that your experience in the world outside the firewall is vast, and valuable. Please feel free to bring its artifacts with you into the corporate culture.”

    The proscenium is broken!

    As corporate leaders “age out” (I love this euphemism for people retiring and dying!) of 19th century models I can see more and more of this kind of invitation going out to the workforce: “bring us your insights, your reports from the edges, your stuff. Together, we’ll figure out what it means for our business.”

    This is a far cry from Henry Ford’s, “Why is it every time I ask for a pair of hands, they come with a brain attached?”

    Slowly, we are coming to appreciate the potential value to the corporation of the integration of life and work. This is what makes modern companies like Google feel so foreign to those who live at the other end of this continuum.

    (And, thanks for the mention!)

  5. Today’s top leadership has so little in common with the workers corporate
    culture no longer evolves but is typically mandated. Want to know the
    company culture don’t read the prospectus, stand by water cooler.

  6. One of the hardest things to do is create and foster a change in culture at a workplace. My wife works at a toxic place and she’s constantly trying to change the culture there, but I believe it’s got to come down from upper management and you have to make it a priority or else it’ll never happen. Some managers get that, but others don’t have a clue.

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