Chief Culture Officer: Lasting Impact or Passing Fad?

Every company with more than 75 employees needs to have a Chief Culture Officer (CCO).  Yes, that’s what I said, and I mean exactly that.  Before you tune me out as a culture zealot who doesn’t understand the realities of running a productive business, I’m not saying any individual needs to have that actual title.  But you darn well better have someone acting in that capacity who knows what they are doing.  Companies have three options to accomplish this, along with one vitally important caveat!

Three CCO Options

Option A: The CEO/Owner functions as the chief culture officer.  In this scenario the CEO is not only passionate and knowledgeable about building culture, he or she will also devote the time necessary to protect the envisioned culture.  With this option there is no issue with regard implementation power – the CEO has plenty of power to get this important goal accomplished.

Option B: The senior leader of HR fills the role of the chief culture officer.  In this situation the senior leader of HR is both knowledgeable and passionate about building culture, and will devote the time necessary to protect the envisioned ideal.

Let’s be clear, building a vibrant and inspiring culture is a completely independent function from ensuring regulatory and legal compliance, smooth payroll operations, and managing benefits.  If the designated HR professional is ill-equipped to move the needle on culture, the results will be what you might expect: some surface initiatives and occasional attention all having little impact.  So, if you empower your top HR leader to be your culture champion, you better have a darn good one – an executive who understands both leadership and culture.  For more our thoughts on what those HR leaders look like, read: What HR Should Be.

Option C: The CEO hires someone who assumes the formal title of chief culture officer.  The first big hurdle for this option is finding someone who has the skill sets and knowledge to credibly and effectively function as a CCO.

No CEO would ever appoint someone to the position of CFO if they had little financial knowledge or acumen; same for a CTO or top human resource officer where both would be expected to have substantial expertise.  But oddly, some CEOs seem to think having a positive attitude is adequate criteria to appoint someone to the role of CCO.  This is a massive error.

There is a large and important body of leadership knowledge available and necessary for someone to function well as CCO.  If your designated CCO does not possess that knowledge – and very few do – consider providing them with a knowledgeable external consultant who will offer tools, tips, insights, and support to accelerate their efforts as an internal culture champion.  A supportive consultant can be the difference between surface pablum and dynamic impact.

The Caveat: No Power

As important as it is to identify the right person for a chief culture officer role, that alone will not be sufficient to assure success.  The designated CCO must also be given power.  If lacking, the CCO will soon be seen akin to a cheerleader, mediator, or trainer.  For example, we sometimes see organizational development trainers asked to roll out programs with the apparent goal of “training their way” to a better culture.  It seldom works; if PowerPoint presentations created strong cultures, we would find a good many more of them.

We also see some using “culture committees” comprised of young and eager employees who advocate for changes yet have no power to implement change – a pattern that may do more damage than good as some budding stars become disillusioned.

Sometimes organizational development trainers are asked to roll out trainings or other programs with the apparent goal of “training their way” to a better culture.  It seldom works; if PowerPoint presentations created strong cultures, we would find a good many more of them.

In other instances, traditional HR professionals (who are often ill-equipped to move the needle on culture) are asked to take the mantle.  The results are what you might expect: some surface initiatives and occasional attention with little effect.

CEOs who choose to delegate culture development and protection to another must recognize the importance of giving that designated executive the power to hold others accountable regarding employee interactions and cultural standards. 

This is not a novel insight; let’s look at a few examples in other domains where such power is routinely delegated.  The CFO has significant power within the realm of financial operations, the CTO is the expert on technical matters, and the senior HR professional holds sway in the realm of personnel.  Unless the CEO elects to overrule, these executives have the final say over their domains.

Similarly, when someone is designated as the chief culture officer, be that the senior leader of HR or a specific individual who holds the literal title of CCO, the process will largely come to naught unless the CEO is wise enough to make it clear to all other top executives that within the realm of building and protecting the envisioned work environment and culture, the CCO has final say, with only the CEO having the authority to overrule.

Other executives need to be put on notice: paying lip-service to culture will not be tolerated.  They should be expected to work collaboratively with the CCO, openly accepting guidance as to how they can more positively impact the culture and deferring to the CCO whenever they are determined to be doing damage.  Anything less (as we point out in a MindSet keynote speech Why the Gap?), shows the organization doesn’t really WANT a great culture.  They just wouldn’t mind if they stumbled into one.

The idea of designating a CCO is a great idea.  Yet I fear it will be a fad destined to fizzle out due to poor implementation – a perfect example of getting the “what” right and blowing the implementation because of a failure to focus attention on the “who” and the “how.”  I hope the CCO bubble doesn’t burst before companies learn to harness it’s potential.  If it does, it will have been a missed opportunity.