Leadership Principles for Changing Corporate Culture

I just read a couple of articles about an important topic, corporate culture. The first one, The Rise of the Chief Culture Officer, describes how companies are appointing “Chief Culture Officers.” Here’s an interesting quote from one of those new execs, Maria Gendelman, from North Jersey Community Bank:

I’m there to make sure that every single piece of paper that we give to the customer all looks the same, that our processes are efficient and streamlined — all of those things touch culture.

The other article is an interview with John Taft, CEO of RBC Wealth Management. Here’s what Taft says about culture:

Culture is everything when it comes to responsible, long-term business success… A leader’s job is to discover, communicate and reinforce culture. If you don’t get culture right, nothing else matters.

My take: Company culture is an integral component of long-term success with customer experience. In our recent research The State of CX Management, 2012, we found that one of the most significant things that distinguishes companies that are CX leaders from their peers is a heightened focus on culture.

Executives may be able to mandate a few activities within a company, but corporate culture determines just about everything else in one way or another. Leadership guru Arthur Carmazzi does a great job of describing the value of corporate culture in this quote that I used in the post Management Imperative #1: Invest In Culture As A Corporate Asset:

“The ability to do more than expected does not come from influencing others to do something they are not committed to, but rather to nurture a culture that motivates and even excites individuals to do what is required for the benefit of all.”

I talk about the intersection of culture and CX as Customer-Centric DNA, defined as:

“A strong, shared set of beliefs that guides how customers are treated.”

Here are some principles that execs should keep in mind about changing their corporate culture and building customer-centric DNA:

  • People generally conform to their environment (see 6 Laws of Customer Experience: Employees do what is measured, incented, and celebrated). So pay very close attention to the environment that you are creating.
  • Culture is very slow to move, because it often outlasts the senior executive team. Make sure you only attack the portions of the culture that you are truly committed to changing.
  • The first step of changing corporate culture is to fully understand the existing culture. It is important to frame the change in terms of explicit contrasts between the current behaviors and the desired future behaviors.
  • It’s likely that many of your existing leaders are reinforcing the current culture, in ways that they probably don’t even recognize. So changing your corporate culture will likely require some management turnover. As Pablo Picasso once said: “Every act of creation is first of all an act of destruction.”
  • Any leader who wants to transform her organization needs to adopt the three characteristics of transformational leaders: Communicate “why,” model desired behaviors, and reinforce change.
  • Use the 6 C’s of customer-centric culture as levers for change: Clear beliefs, constant communications, collective celebrations, compelling stories, commitment to employees, and consistent tradeoffs.
  • Finally, I’m not a big fan of the Chief Culture Officer position. I’d like to see Chief People Officers (heads of HR) step up to the plate and integrate culture as a core component of their organization’s work. Without culture in mind, how effective can an HR organization be at recruiting, hiring, on-boarding, reviewing, compensating, training, promoting, and outplacing employees?!?

The bottom line: Are you focusing enough on your corporate culture?

About Bruce Temkin
I am a customer experience transformist, helping large organizations improve business results by changing how they deal with customers. As part of this focus, I examine strategy, marketing, interaction design, customer service, and leadership practices. I am also a fanatical student of business, so this blog provides an outlet for sharing insights from my ongoing educational journey. Simply put, I am passionate about spotting emerging best practices and helping companies master them. And, as many people know, I love to speak about these topics in almost any forum. My “title” is Managing Partner of the Temkin Group, a customer experience research and consulting firm that helps organizations become more customer-centric. Our goal is simple: accelerate the path to delighting customers. I am also the co-founder and chair of the Customer Experience Professionals Association (CXPA.org), a non-profit organization dedicated to the success of CX professionals.

One Response to Leadership Principles for Changing Corporate Culture

  1. Jeff Toister says:

    Great post — I especially like the quote from John Taft which is so right on. Many companies spend time on culture, but most stop well short of commitment. At the end of the day, culture is what we do, not necessarily what our latest slogan or vision statement says we are.

    With this in mind, I think the CEO is really the Chief Culture Officer. If it’s the HR Exec, than people-processes might be aligned, but what about operational leadership? The way Maria Gendelman described a Chief Culture Office sounds like a marketing exec, but are financial management decisions also aligned? If culture is paramount, then the ultimate champion ought to be the CEO.

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