The best CEOs put culture first. Here’s why.

3 min read
CEOs Put Culture First

Times have changed since Mark H. McCormack first published his international bestselling book What they don’t teach you at Harvard Business School, in 1984. Businesses have shifted to models of intangible asset valuations in data, intellectual property and human capital, to name a few. And… Harvard Business School have a module on the determinants of group culture as a part of their Leadership and Organisational Behaviour module.

The evidence is mounting (at an exponential rate since the COVID-19 pandemic) in support of the importance of culture in talent attraction, retention, productivity, engagement, trust, innovation and almost any other business performance metric. One extensive study, conducted by Duke University just prior to the pandemic, reported that “a strong corporate culture fosters better execution, reduction in agency cost, and therefore higher productivity and creativity.” The study surveyed more than 1,800 CEOs and CFOs worldwide, and 92% of respondents reported that improved culture improves organisational value.

Without wanting to labour the point, culture is vital to business success and institutions that excel in leadership education are placing a significant emphasis on the skills required to manage and transform an organisation’s culture.

With all the evidence staring us in the face, it seems a little surprising that CEOs still (broadly) delegate the responsibility of owning the development of THEIR company culture to other functions in the business.  That said, many other people and functions are vital to the success of culture change. Senior leadership must support and emulate the behaviours and decisions of the CEO and HR are critical in defining the processes and systems that will ensure the successful execution of a CEO’s cultural vision. That said, it is still the behaviours of those at the top that is most crucial to the creation and maintenance of an organisation’s unique company culture.

‘You need to own it, live it and constantly reinforce the messages and expectations. After all, CEOs will be remembered for the culture and tone they set’ Chris Jones, CEO at BMJ

You only have to look at the world’s most successful companies and their cultural leaders (CEOs, of course) to see how the person really does define the culture. One strategy, we at Culture15 often see play out, is to appoint a culture lead who sits outside of the HR function. They work closely and directly with the CEO and senior leadership team, ensuring culture is at the top of every transformation agenda.

People follow people. Fact. People join a business for their manager and they leave for the same reason. Mark H. McCormack, on the topic of “Creating Impressions,” mentions how “the day-to-day flow of business rarely provides for the Monumental Act or the Grand Gesture. Just as you gain some of the greatest insights into people by the little things they say and do, it is the little things you say and do that often make the most enduring impression.” This certainly has stood the test of time and is a testament to the importance of behaviours in creating the environment and culture around you that becomes what people turn up to work for and what they remember you (as their leader) by.

My reading recommendation today is… The Culture Code by Daniel Coyle, who analyses the key attributes in creating successful cultures, with references across Apple, Disney (Pixar), The Navy Seals and many more of the world’s most revered organisations. Finally, if you haven’t read What they don’t teach you at Harvard business school by Mark H. McCormack, and you are a CEO (or anyone for that matter), this is another brilliant insight into the mind of a phenomenally successful CEO.

Culture15 is your complete toolkit for tracking culture change. CEOs and Exec Teams at world-leading organisations use Culture15 analytics to ensure success by aligning their culture with what they need to execute their strategy. If you’d like to find out how to define the culture and values you need, diagnose the culture you have and close the gap, talk to our team. 

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