Tag Archives: Tom Guarriello

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.


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.


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.


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

Minerva Contest

Squint your eyes, and the two shows look virtually identical.

In both, a stranger arrives bearing an object of uncertain provenance and, with cameras rolling, an expert offers an assessment of value.

Stop squinting, and the differences flourish.

One show is the Antiques Roadshow, the pride of the PBS system.

The eight-time Emmy® Award-nominated ANTIQUES ROADSHOW marks its 14th season in 2010. PBS’s highest-rated series, ROADSHOW is seen by almost 10 million viewers each week. In each episode, specialists from the country’s leading auction houses — Bonhams and Butterfields, Christie’s, Doyle New York, Skinner and Sotheby’s — and independent dealers from across the nation offer free appraisals of antiques and collectibles. ANTIQUES ROADSHOW cameras capture tales of family heirlooms, yard sale bargains and long-lost items salvaged from attics and basements, while experts reveal the fascinating truths about these finds.

The other is Pawn Stars,

At the Gold & Silver Pawn Shop on the outskirts of Las Vegas, three generations of the Harrison family–grandfather Richard, son Rick and grandson Corey–jointly run the family business… The three men use their sharp eyes and skills to assess the value of items from the commonplace to the truly historic, including a 16th-century samurai sword, a Super Bowl ring, a Picasso painting and a 17th-century stay of execution. It’s up to them to determine what’s real and what’s fake, as they reveal the often surprising answer to the questions on everyone’s mind, "What’s the story behind it"? and "What’s it worth?"

Your assignment: to write an essay of 1000 words or less that captures the culture similarities and differences between these two shows.  Be exhaustive.  Be exacting.  Be brief.  Point form is perfectly ok.

Your essays will be judged by a panel of experts (and value will be assessed, no cameras rolling).  The winner will get a Minerva (as pictured).  One hint: what are the cultural worlds from which these variations come?  Another: what is value and how is it being assessed in each case? A third: Please examine stylistic differences.

Deadline: December 15.

Previous Winners

Juri Saar (for the "Who’s a good doggie woggie?" contest)

Reiko Waisglass (for the "Who’s a good doggie woggie?" contest)

Brent Shelkey (for the "Who’s a good doggie woggie?" contest)

Daniel Saunders (for the "JJ Abrams vs. Joss Whedon" contest)

Tim Sullivan (for the "Karen Black vs. Betty White" contest)

Lauren LaCascia (for the "Showtime vs. USA Networks" contest)

Diandra Mintz (for the "Showtime vs. USA Networks" contest)


Members of the faculty of the SVA (School of Visual Arts) ‘masters in branding’ program, including Debbie Millman, Pamela DeCesare, Dan Formosa, Tom Guarriello, Scott Lerman, and Richard Shear.   

Lie to Me? You decide

The misery at the Tribune continues.  It stands accused of having created a frat house atmosphere.

David Carr of the New York Times reports an event that took place at the beginning of the regime of Randy Michaels, Tribune CEO. Shortly after his appointment, Michaels ran into several colleagues at the Intercontinental Hotel.

Carr gives us starkly different versions of what happened next.

After Mr. Michaels arrived, according to two people at the bar that night, he sat down and said, “watch this,” and offered the waitress $100 to show him her breasts. The group sat dumbfounded.

“Here was this guy, who was responsible for all these people, getting drunk in front of senior people and saying this to a waitress who many of us knew,” said one of the Tribune executives present, who declined to be identified because he had left the company and did not want to be quoted criticizing a former employer. “I have never seen anything like it.”

Mr. Michaels, who otherwise declined to be interviewed, said through a spokesman, “I never made the comment allegedly attributed to me in January 2008 to a waitress at the InterContinental Hotel, and anyone who said I did so is either lying or mistaken.”

A clear case of "He said, He said."  The accusation is detailed.  The rebuttal is precise and emphatic.

Now, if we were Cal Lightman, the character on Lie to Me, modeled on the psychologist Paul Ekman, we might well have an opinion about which of these parties speaks the truth.  But there is also an anthropological approach to the question.

I am not insisting on this interpretation.  I am suggesting it.  The reader may decide whether it is plausible as a way of assessing what may have happened that night at the Intercontinental…or not.

It is not a precise science, this sort of decoding, but here goes.   There is something about the way the accuser describes the occasion that carries a certain plausibility.  "Here was a guy…"  We can hear the astonishment.  A CEO offering to pay for nudity.   In front of peers in a public place.   With someone known to the peers.   Astonishment becomes dismay, dismay becomes horror.  This is not merely a description of the event.  It is a record of it. The accusation doesn’t merely assert evidence.  It contains evidence.

My argument: some accounts may be judged plausible because they carry traces of the event they report.  And I think this record does. I believe we can feel something of the event. I believe we can hear the speaker’s emotions in the moment.  I believe we can see the social event coming undone.   I believe the event left an impression on the accuser and this impression has been transferred to his accusation.  I believe the Intercontinental event left traces.  Not in the physical world, but in the emotional one, I believe.

Let us make the argument negatively.  If the accuser were lying, I think his account would be more descriptive, more informational.  It would not carry these emotional and social data.   Of course, gifted liars might be expected to reproduce emotional and social data in order to create plausibility.  But they would have to be very gifted liars indeed to capture the emotions of the moment and the shambles of the event. The thing is most people aren’t sentient enough to fake this kind of emotional and social data.  We just don’t understand our emotional and social lives that well.

Anyhow, you be the judge.  Which of these accounts of the event do you find more compelling?  Please let me know.  (Tom Guarriello is my advisor in matters psychological. I’m hoping he’ll let us know what he thinks.)


Carr, David. 2010. “At Sam Zell’s Tribune, Tales of a Bankrupt Culture.” The New York Times, October 5 http://www.nytimes.com/2010/10/06/business/media/06tribune.html?_r=3&ref=business (Accessed October 19, 2010).