Could appointing a chief culture officer be the right move for your company?

Over the past few years, an increasing number of executives have warmed to the idea that culture should be a vital part of the employee onboarding and assimilation process, but Meghan M. Biro, CEO of TalentCulture Consulting Group, put forward an even more revolutionary idea in an article for Forbes.

In a nod to the perceived importance of culture, Biro proposed adding a culture-focused position – that of “chief culture officer” (CCO) – to the boardroom. However, some might argue that the ranks of leadership are already crowded enough, and although culture is important, further expanding the C-suite is not the answer.

“I’m not sure we need a CCO, just engaged leaders who give thought to what it means to be a ‘culture carrier,'” said Dave Winston, leader of Caldwell Partners’ Industrial Practice.

Regardless of whether firms decide onboarding a CCO would be beneficial to them or not, one thing is for sure: Culture is important, and leaders have a key part to play in establishing and maintaining it. Indeed, opined Winston, “‘tone at the top’ does more to influence [culture] than anything else” – but all too often, leaders misunderstand what setting this tone actually means.

“Lots of companies … 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,” she wrote, alluding to stories of what life is like for employees at some of the firms that made Glassdoor’s Best Places to Work 2014 list, including search engine titan Google.

The company’s East Coast headquarters, located in the Chelsea neighborhood of Manhattan, was featured in a March 2013 New York Times article by James B. Stewart, who described the office’s “labyrinth of play areas; cafes, coffee bars and open kitchens; sunny outdoor terraces with chaises; gourmet cafeterias that serve free breakfast, lunch and dinner; Broadway-theme conference rooms with velvet drapes; and conversation areas designed to look like vintage subway cars.”

Creating a solid corporate culture

Although not every company can hope to establish an environment as novel as Google’s, there are some tips organizations of all sizes and types should keep in mind when attempting to shore up their corporate cultures.

Determine their cultural priorities
Just as firms each have their own individual mission statements and core values, their cultures should be similarly unique. Establishing an environment that’s low-key and fun might not be the best option for a high-pressure financial firm, for instance, but offering accommodations such as laundry service might go down well among employees.

Hire a CCO who “gets it”
“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,” Biro encouraged executives. After all, a CCO who isn’t on the same page as the rest of the members of the C-suite is unlikely to succeed when it comes to establishing a robust corporate culture. That said, CCOs can’t be expected to work miracles, so Biro underscored the importance of providing new leaders with any necessary resources.

Don’t overlook the importance of hiring
“A bad hire is more than 50 percent a leadership fault,” Biro claimed – and each of these wrong fits will erode corporate culture. Because of this, companies need to do everything they can to make the correct hiring choices right off the bat. At the leadership level, this might involve bringing in an executive search firm.

Trust employee referrals
Sometimes, a successful onboarding effort comes as a result of who – not what – a candidate knows.

“Employee referrals really pay off: a good employee already knows who, among his or her contacts, will be a culture fit,” Biro noted.

Let cultural guideposts emerge
“The key to culture is being aware of subtlety and nuance,” Biro wrote. “Watch in meetings, don’t talk. Listen, don’t be defensive. Culture will reveal itself.”

Most workforces will develop some semblance of culture even without corporate community-building efforts. Executives should build on what’s already there, rather than trying to reinvent the wheel.

Avoid making the firm into something it’s not
“Some companies are built to do great things; others are built to support lifestyles … The economy needs both types of business to survive,” Biro observed.

Culture-building needs to take this into account or risk mismatches between corporate culture and the reality of the products and services that a firm provides.

The perils of ignoring culture

Some companies haven’t yet been sold on the importance of culture-building, dismissing it as nothing more than the latest gimmick, but there is an abundance of research suggesting that failure to bolster corporate culture leads to a cavalcade of undesirable realities. These include reduced employee engagement, low performance, high turnover, lackluster customer service and depleted company loyalty among both consumers and workers.

So, what does all this have to do with culture? According to Forbes contributor Erika Andersen, a lot. In a 2012 piece for the news source, Andersen cited a statistic that claimed as many as 89 percent of hires that don’t work out can be attributed to cultural misalignment. With these types of numbers in the mix, companies should ignore culture at their peril.

About Caldwell Partners

Caldwell Partners is a leading international provider of executive search and has been for more than 40 years. As one of the world’s most trusted advisors in executive search, the firm has a sterling reputation built on successful searches for boards, chief and senior executives, and selected functional experts. With offices and partners across North America and in London, the firm takes pride in delivering an unmatched level of service and expertise to its clients.

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