Why senior leaders don't champion culture

Culture happens as we add people.jpg

One of the craziest things I’ve ever heard in my career came from a seasoned, senior executive who, while explaining why he was canning a culture initiative before it had even begun, said, “Culture just happens as we add people.” I almost fell off my seat. The loudest, most coherent thought in my mind - past all the feelings of indignation and disbelief - was “Have you literally never heard of Peter Drucker?”

Of course he had. You can’t run an organisation for 15 plus years and not have heard the phrase “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.” (Though, I acknowledge, no one is quite sure if it was Peter Drucker who did in fact say that). You can’t have run an organisation for that long, or been in any leadership position, and not have also been presented with the literature outlining the profound effect of culture on organisational outcomes.

So why do comparatively few senior leaders believe the literature enough to truly champion intentional culture? Why is culture so frequently left to the agenda of HR, rather than wholeheartedly adopted as the agenda of the CEO? 

I suspect that a really foundational ‘what it means to be human’ issue is coming into play, here:

  1. In order to truly champion the type of culture that we want to exist within an organisation, we must, at some point, have gotten really explicit about what that kind of culture is. This is because you can’t truly champion anything you don’t believe in.
  2. But getting to that point firstly requires us to be explicit about how we see the world. This is because culture is, by its very definition, the ideas, customs, and social behaviour of a particular people or society… and all of those things spring from our beliefs about how the world works and what is valuable enough to pursue.
  3. So, in order to be explicit about how we see the world, we must firstly be conscious about how we see the world. If we are not conscious, then we cannot articulate (or evaluate!) our beliefs.
  4. Becoming conscious about our beliefs is often painful. This is because our beliefs have typically been formed through very significant, emotional experiences, and have come to feel foundational to our very sense of self. In order to avoid the initial pain of coming to consciousness, many people avoid it and never become conscious at all. It’s okay to be scared... But that’s not enough of a reason to avoid journeying inward. 
  5. If you are unconscious about your beliefs, you can neither articulate or evaluate them, but you will unconsciously live them out. That is, your unconsciously held values are made explicit through your behavior. This is where we start to see the gaps between stated values and what is actually pursued in organisations. For example, if you, as a senior leader in a business, genuinely believed:
  • that diversity was a good thing, then you would already have a genuinely diverse leadership team;
  • that the customer really did come first, then you wouldn’t incentivise shortcuts to be taken in the creation of the product you were selling, and you wouldn’t get rid of the complaints department; 
  • that your employees wellbeing was really important to your bottom line, then you’d prioritise great internal communications and you’d facilitate their input into how things were done… you wouldn’t just buy them donuts when things went to shit.
A rough theory .jpg

I’d posit that many senior leaders avoid getting into real conversations about culture because they don’t understand it. They don’t understand it, because they haven’t done the inner work necessary to understand themselves… and you can’t talk about (let alone champion) norms that govern the relationships between a group of people, if you don’t have a relationship with yourself. So, it becomes easier to abdicate this responsibility under the guise of delegating it to someone else, like your HR department. But, by so doing, the foundational importance of culture is diluted because it isn’t the agenda of the CEO (which everyone else in the organisation is lining up to).

This is, ultimately, an integrity issue. You don’t have integrity simply because it is plastered on the wall of your organisation or written across your stationary as a key value of the company. Integrity is a state of being, not a value. It’s where our inner and outer selves are in alignment: when what we say, and what we do, match up. As Parker Palmer once wrote, “When we understand integrity for what it is, we stop obsessing over codes of conduct and embark on the more demanding journey toward being whole.”

Anna Stanford