The following is a guest piece by Jon Katzenbach and DeAnne Aguirre.
It is striking to see how many chief executives see their most important responsibility as being the leader of the company’s culture. According to Ginni Rometty, CEO of IBM, “Culture is your company’s number one asset.” Her counterpart at Microsoft, Steve Ballmer, has said, “Everything I do is a reinforcement or not of what we want to have happen culturally.”
Recognizing the importance of culture in business is not the same thing as being an effective cultural chief executive. The CEO is the most visible leader in a company. His or her direct engagement in all facets of the company’s culture can make an enormous difference, not just in how people feel about the company, but in how they perform.
There are several things you can do from your highly visible position at the top of the hierarchy to spark and foster the cultural realignments you want to see:
1. Demonstrate the power of positive urgency
Time and again, we hear executives cite the importance of having a “burning platform” – a stress-producing crisis, whether externally driven or self-induced – to incite a high-performance culture. There is a much better way to overcome complacency.
As a CEO or senior executive, the greatest thing you can do is to marshal an authentic sense of urgency, but not one built solely on the logical reasons that change is necessary. Rather, build an emotional sense of urgency, focusing on the values that the company cares about collectively: its way of serving customers, its desire for growth and success, its positive impact on social and community issues, and the attraction and welcome that people felt when they first arrived.
2. Pick a critical few behaviors
To help people capitalize on the best aspects of your culture, you have to focus attention on the critical few behaviors that you believe matter most. These are a few positive sources of energy, pride, and interactions that, when nurtured and spread to scale, will improve company performance significantly.
As simple as it sounds, this approach will not only accelerate the behavior change that matters most, but also evolve and align your culture more effectively than forcing a major and potentially disruptive culture change effort on a broadly diverse global organization.
It is essential to emulate at least some of these emerging key behaviors yourself—to be a living model of the culture you aspire to lead. People pay rapt attention to what the CEO does, not just what the CEO says.
You can’t rely on communications, no matter how inspiring. You, and ideally a few other senior leaders, have to step out by behaving in new ways that both capitalize on elements in the current culture and demonstrate a key shift in cultural alignment.
In the video below, retired Campbell’s Soup Company CEO Doug Conant shares with Booz & Company senior partner Jon Katzenbach an example of how one of his critical few behaviors allowed him to connect more effectively with people in his organization:
3. Balance your appeals to the company to include both rational and emotional cues
When putting together a business strategy or a case for action, it’s important to integrate the rational arguments from top leaders with compelling emotional appeals at more personal levels.
One without the other is unlikely to sustain cultural alignment. In other words, in addition to a rational business case for change and other formal mechanisms, it’s important to develop emotional impact through such forces as peer approval, the support of colleagues, and the admiration of friends and family.
4. Make the change sustainable by maintaining vigilance on the few critical elements that you have established as important
Your role as a cultural leader starts on Day One of your appointment as CEO. It will not end until the last day you hold that office. Indeed, your persistence in emphasizing the right cultural behavior will continue to be influential after you have left.
Because cultures evolve in informal ways that are hard to track, they can easily degrade before many people are even aware something bad is happening. Chief executives in peak-performing companies almost never let this happen; they work hard to keep an eye on the critical few behaviors over time.
You can either keep promoting the same few behaviors or, after the first few have taken hold, pick a few more to model and support.
In all this activity, avoid delegating your culture-oriented actions. Do as much as you can yourself.
NOTE: This is an abridged piece from the strategy+business article, “Culture and the Chief Executive.” You can read the full version of this article here.
Jon Katzenbach is a senior partner in Booz & Company’s organization, change, and leadership practice, and co-leads the firm’s Katzenbach Center in New York. He is the coauthor with Zia Khan of “Leading Outside the Lines: How to Mobilize the (in)Formal Organization, Energize Your Team, and Get Better Results“.
DeAnne Aguirre is a senior partner with Booz & Company based in San Francisco, and one of the firm’s foremost experts on organization effectiveness and change leadership. She co-leads the Katzenbach Center.