The CEO’s Role in Culture

The answer to the question about the CEO’s role in culture has a bit of a paradox in it, so let me ask two more detailed questions to get to the point. First question:

Does the CEO drive the culture?

No. The culture does not emanate from the CEO, with the exception of a startup with just one or two employees plus the CEO. In those cases, the CEO is in the process of creating a culture with the force of his or her behavior and personality, yes. But in most organizations, the culture is, by definition, bigger than the CEO. It lives in the behaviors and choices of many, many people, so there’s no way that the CEO could make a singular decision at the top and then have it automatically manifest itself throughout the culture. As a CEO, you can’t drive culture with that level of control or precision.

That being said, the CEO does still have a disproportionate amount of power around culture, though it may not be the kind of power you’d like: the power to kill it. A very smart CEO I know once said:

As the CEO I can’t really drive our culture by myself. But I can kill it in a heartbeat.

Everyone has their eyes on the CEO when it comes to culture, so if your behavior ends up running counter to the espoused culture, people will pay attention to the behavior first. I know that’s a lot of pressure, but hey, who said leadership was easy? This leads us, by the way, to our second question:

So if you can’t really drive the culture, should you turn the work of culture over to the staff?

No. They need you. Here’s the paradox, and it’s an important one. As CEO, you can’t drive the culture in a controlling kind of way, but the culture still needs the voice, or the imprint of the CEO on it for it to work. That is one of the core components of the CEO job—setting the basic vector of your culture. If employees try to craft a culture without your input, it will be like a puzzle with a few missing pieces at the middle. It won’t hold together, no matter how beautiful it looks.

So yes, you’ll want other staff engaged in the culture work. That’s key. That’s one reason why nearly all of our culture consulting projects involve creating a cross-functional and multi-level “culture team” (and yes, many clients call it a Culture Club). But you’ll need to insert yourself into the work at key points. Like when you’re clarifying what drives the success of the organization—the team will need YOUR view on that. It’s not that they aren’t aware of the strategic imperatives or "super powers" of the organization. They just need to know that you see them the same way. That’s a key piece of how you will set the vector of culture.

So embrace the paradox of not controlling—yet being entirely critical to—your workplace culture. Trying to choose either of those paths singularly will inevitably weaken your culture.

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