Time For A New Leader In The C-Suite?

Business is remaking itself, and a concern for company culture appears to be high on the list of must-have skills (led by people who can add and subtract, of course). This truly makes me happy. What about you?

I’ve been touting the benefits of company culture for a many years now and am very interested, but a bit skeptical to be honest, to read of this change in direction. Isn’t the C-Suite crowded already? There’s the CEO, CFO and COO, usually long-term appointments, flanked by the CIO, CSO and CMO, with average job tenures of two years. Usually the top HR person merits a VP title, not a C level label, so he or she sometimes falls below the radar of the inner ring of power mover/shakers.

But maybe that’s changing. I’m feeling like it just might be. For sure, from where I sit, it’s a great idea. I’m curious how many other people have “Chief Culture Officer” on their leadership radar.

What’s a workplace culture worth to you as a leader or an employee? For companies not on the bleeding edge of technology, a great deal. Consider the story of Ken Thomson, chronicled here. Thomson was notable for three things: common sense, exquisite taste in art, and a commitment to building a business by hiring the right people and keeping them happy. We have humanized his leadership brand by telling a story.

We can quibble with taste in art. We can debate what constitutes common sense. But hiring the right people and keeping them happy? Priceless, really. There’s art there, and passion, and pure savvy. It takes a a real person AND a leader committed to building a company culture, something in small demand in today’s all-or-nothing world of work.

Don’t get me wrong. Lots of companies, especially the software technology and media firms that I partner with to recruit and retain the best talent, understand they need a distinct workplace culture to be competitive. It’s just that they think culture is drop-off dry cleaning, Foosball and energy drinks without end. While free food and convenience have their appeal culture is much more complicated. It’s tough work to build a resilient, coherent company culture, but it can be done.

My leadership build-a-culture prescription follows:

Know what type of culture you are trying to create. Culture is dependent on shared values and trust from leadership. Communication and honesty are must-haves, but don’t kid yourself by saying that your company will thrive if the culture is based on accoutrements (e.g. pool tables) rather than values. If I were building a company, I’d plunk for trust, shared goals, and ability to communicate. But that’s me. Other people might cite ‘passion’, but I think that’s business rhetoric for ‘give us all you have and we’ll think about the bonus.’ But you might have a different calculus. (Side note: if we add PASSION I’m all for it. Some leaders I talk to view this as a “soft skill”. I believe passion is essential for teams to thrive and stay engaged)

Hire someone who understands what company you’re trying to build. Don’t saddle that person with the VeeP of HR job “just because”. We all know one aspect of a VP of HR role is about risk management and negotiating contracts with health care providers and so on. Maybe this person who wants the Chief Culture Officer role is not really passionate about these tasks. Give someone else the keys to your dream: hire a Chief Culture Officer and empower that person to think like you, react like you, sense like you. You need a virtual twin to make culture work, so go all in and find the person who understands your vision. Oh, and pay them a lot and listen to what they need to be successful.

People are the key. A functional and positive culture can’t be built if you want all Ernies and hire a crop of Berts. Be careful leaders, even one or two Berts can sink a company in short order. Pay careful attention when hiring: get the right people, the first time if possible. If you don’t, be prepared to cut your losses and have a plan for that. Be generous, not mean; after all, a bad hire is more than 50 percent a leadership fault. Not catching the mistake early will cost more than will a graceful exit. Something to sink your time into.

Resumes aren’t everything. This is similar to the second point, but let’s play it out: the right person might be there in a pile of resumes but your HR software won’t see it. This is where employee referrals really pay off: a good employee already knows who, among his or her contacts, will be a culture fit. Listen to your people. Value their opinions. Instant happy culture. 

Know when to back it down. Everyone says the key to culture is work hard and play hard. I beg to differ. The key to culture is being aware of subtlety and nuance. Watch in meetings, don’t talk. Listen, don’t be defensive. Culture will reveal itself. You can jump aboard, or decide to adjust the cast of characters

Don’t assume everyone ‘loves’ what they do. Some companies are built to do great things; others are built to support lifestyles. Know which one you’re leading. Don’t quail at the implicit judgment; the economy needs both types of business to survive. Consider the Post Office and FedEx FDX +1.47%: ‘nuff said.

So is it time for you to create the post of Chief Culture Officer? Emphatic Yes. Do you want your business to survive the next wave of broken and shallow business models? Do you understand that value has multiple meanings? Do you want to build a real business, not a flip-out? Then do it.

Get an extra chair for the C-Suite and surround it with a gracious and comfortable space. Make sure there’s another comfortable chair across the desk, too. You’ll spend some time in that one.

Is it time to hire a Chief Culture Officer? Or at least dream about the possibilities?

A version of this post as first published on Forbes.com on 8/13/12

Photo Credit: sara_moseley via Compfight cc