Culture: An Overlooked Superpower of the C-Suite

user Catherine Gray and Mina Muraki
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In the first of a series of short dialogues about organizational culture, Trium Partners Catherine Gray and Mina Muraki explore and answer five key questions:

  • Why must CEOs and senior teams own and model culture?
  • How to get next-level leaders aligned behind your culture to drive performance and results?
  • What are the five tenets of culture?
  • Is there a generational consideration about culture?
  • How do people know when a culture is real?

Catherine: Everyone thinks that culture is the soft stuff. It’s not.  I don’t think there is a more powerful tool a CEO and c-suite have to move their entire system, their entire company, in the direction they want it to go. Forever it’s been seen as an HR exercise, a “nice to have” to let people know what you stand for through a set of values. But it’s way more than that — it’s the fuel that gets everything moving. 

Mina: Yes, and that’s why CEOs and their senior teams have to define the culture, own it and drive it. They actually have to define it to own it. It’s essential they do this because it’s so closely tied to performance and results.

Catherine: One of the biggest pain points we find with most of our senior teams is their next-level leaders are not owning, driving and aligned behind the strategy and it is the unlock for success. A lot of times we hear, “We don’t get it. Our next-level leaders don’t own it like we own it. They’re waiting for us to do things. They’re not accountable.” 

We always tell them to look in the mirror – if your next-level leaders are not driving the strategy and modeling the aspirational behaviors of your culture, that’s on you. At the end of the day what a senior team rewards, condones and models IS the culture of the company and their direct reports are looking to them for cues on what is acceptable and how to behave. If a senior team doesn’t hold their direct reports accountable, you will not have a culture of accountability. If a senior team does not behave in a way that is inclusive, I don’t care if you have a value of inclusion it just won’t happen in the company. If your strategy demands that you move and scale quickly and the CEO and senior team don’t know how to be decisive, that is what you will get from your next-level leaders and they will carry the behavior down to their teams resulting in a culture of indecisiveness and swirl.

Mina: It’s the modeling piece from the senior team that’s so critical. It’s a bit of an efficiency play. If you don’t have a senior team that’s modeling the right culture and showing up consistently, you’ll potentially have an organization that is going in a million different directions and teams that aren’t being as effective as they could be. 

Catherine: Setting vision and culture is like a “moon shot.” It’s the power of declaring an aspirational vision of where you are headed as a company and who you need to be without fully knowing how you are going to get there. As a c-suite, you have to keep reminding people where you are going and what you expect of your people to pull it off.  Imagine if when Kennedy announced we were putting the first person on the moon, the whole crew at NASA went in different directions, had unclear expectations for how to behave, and were not working together, they would have never completed the mission. That is why a strong culture is the accelerant to your vision and strategy – without it, people default to their individual preferences and ways of working and getting to your goals is much harder and less efficient.

Mina: There are so many different things happening in the world right now that are forcing leaders to revisit their vision and strategy: there’s the Great Resignation, COVID, the shift to hybrid workplaces and changes in leadership. This is the perfect time to re-evaluate culture as vision and strategy shift. We have five core beliefs about culture:

 

  1. The first point is the distinction between what’s on the wall versus experience — what’s experienced in the organization is the real culture, what matters. 
  2. The second is that culture serves strategies. Culture is like an accelerant, it’s an enabler, it’s a lever that companies can use to ensure their strategies succeed. 
  3. The third is that it has to be distinctive to be effective – and memorable. It can’t be the same ten values that everyone else has — it has to be something that people will really recognize as distinct to the company.
  4. The fourth is that this is job number one (or certainly top three) for leaders. Culture does not just happen. It’s got to be nurtured, it’s got to be shaped, it’s got to be constantly managed. 
  5. The fifth is that culture evolves. Previously, people believed that culture had to stay consistent forever. But it’s not evergreen — it’s tied to strategy and the context in which the organization exists. As strategies shift, it may be necessary to revisit your culture. Over time, cultures can develop a “shadow side,” unintended consequences or behaviors, so it’s healthy to reflect on whether it needs to be tweaked to serve where a company is headed next. 

Culture has got to be something that people can feel.

Catherine: I would also say we’re seeing a lot of people look at their culture again because of the #MeToo movement and the importance of inclusion.

Mina: But I think we have to be careful about generalizing and saying things like, for example, “All good cultures have to allow for Gen Z to express themselves” (I know that’s an exaggeration.) In principle, we would say, yes, it’s absolutely important that a culture allows everyone who’s going to live in it and who’s going to thrive to be their authentic self. But some cultures and organizations will emphasize that more than others — and that’s okay because cultures can evolve, as we’ve been saying. If for a period of time the organization needs to go into a mode where they emphasize more of “we collaborate to win” or “or we’ve got to be a little bit more aggressive” — that’s okay. It’s more important that organizations are able to clearly define it without any misinterpretations and without things getting lost in translation.

Catherine: Right! It’s important to be clear about your culture, as long as it is ethical. For example, “We are a company born of tradition and believe it is important to follow more traditional practices and behaviors in the workplace.  We come to work in suits, that’s what we do, we don’t encourage people to come to work wearing miniskirts and purple hair — it’s not our culture.” There are going to be other cultures who value bringing your whole self to work and don’t care if employees have purple hair or come in a suit. They will attract people who value that. The most important thing is that companies are clear and be unapologetic about it so  people can choose. 

Mina: And that’s the distinctive piece, right? It’s got to be something that people can feel. And if it doesn’t feel right, that’s okay. We’d rather you know who we are and how we show up. If people opt out, that’s absolutely fine.

Catherine: So how do you know that culture is real? It is undeniable. It’s the brand. It’s the way you’re recruited.  It’s the way you’re treated in the interview process. It’s how you get onboarded. It’s how meetings are designed. It’s what gets rewarded. It is the way things get done and it’s consistent from top to bottom.  There’s an intense focus on it by the senior team and you can feel it.  You walk in and you think, “Wow, there’s something special happening here.”

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