The CEO's Role in Managing Culture: Do What You Believe in Most

By Melissa Raffoni, CEO, The Raffoni Group

My first job post-business school was as an organizational change management consultant with Oracle. I was a part of the business unit charged with successfully implementing large scale ERP systems. I read everything I could on managing change, driving cultural shifts and effective communication. And what I learned, was at the Fortune 500 level, implementing change was a slow slog at best. 

Now, I have the privilege of working directly with middle-market CEOs of growth companies. We make fast decisions. We barely talk about politics. We help each other make things happen. 

For a while, in my role of CEO strategic facilitator, I actually dismissed the idea of culture management, taking a strong stance that happy leaders make a happy company and that leaders are happiest with clear goals that they achieve and feel good about. End of story. 

While I do still believe in my original point of view, there are two additional perspectives I now hold to be true.

Number one: Changing a bad culture is really hard. This lesson has been learned over and over from our CEOs who adopt company cultures when taking on a new position.

Number two: Finding and keeping good talent is a heightened challenge at the moment. As a result, culture management is back on my radar.

With that in mind, here's a true story...  

Mr. Three-Time CEO is a great guy. He's hard-working and very successful by all definitions, yet to his peers, he admits the culture aspect of business always gets him down. His attempts at establishing values, providing bagels and offering ping pong tables has never produced the change he was looking for. 

This past year, at a CEO Collective peer group meeting, he presented a case to his fellow CEOs on his desire to change his current company's culture. He felt his engineering-based organization was not as passionate, positive or as enthused as he would like. The company was also moving facilities, providing a perfect opportunity to give culture change another go. He presented a lengthy plan to his peer group full of initiatives and they told him, "Hey, of all these, why don't you pick three or four that you are most excited about. Go with the ones you believe in most." And that’s what he did.  

He chose to initiate small group and company-wide community service projects, host cookouts on Friday, and run a photo contest where employees could submit their own photos aligned with the company's mission to decorate the office. He put a culture committee in charge of employee surveys and communicating results and planned changes based on learnings.

The CEO and leadership must believe in what they are implementing.

After making these efforts, Mr. CEO came back to his peer group singing a new tune, "I’m now a believer that change can happen. The culture is better, the people are more engaged, and I am more energized."

My takeaway here was as much as we want initiatives and values to come from the bottom, they really should come from the top. If we believe the real differentiator of culture change is leadership "walking the talk," then it makes perfect sense that they should believe in the "talk." 

Yes, employee involvement drives buy-in, but directionally, the CEO and leadership team must believe in what they are implementing. If not, employees see through it and aren’t motivated. In return, results aren’t much more than feel-good words on a poster, an occasional ping pong game, and a few extra pounds from all of those bagels.