CEO’s role in driving company culture

Many chief executives see it as their most important responsibility to work at the organizational culture. Like the CEO of Amazon said a couple of years ago:

My main job today: I work hard at the culture - Jeff Bezos

Stanford University's Charles O'Reilly and his colleagues found that the CEO personality has a strong effect on the company culture. (By the way, they also proved that the culture is subsequently related to financial performance, employee attitudes and other positive outcomes.)

Apart from the CEO influence stated above, there are three other reasons a CEO should own and drive any culture change or consolidation effort:

  • Culture is a potential competitive advantage.
  • Only the person at the top of the pyramid has the authority across the entire company.
  • A CEO that gives only lip service to a cultural effort, will find everyone else doing the same.

So what should a CEO do to help succeed a culture change? There are four key roles:

1. Communicate significance

People go to extraordinary lengths for causes they believe in. A powerful story creates and reinforces commitment. The story must be personal. Answer questions such as "Why do we want to change the culture?", "How will we do it?" and "What does this mean for me?". As CEO, talk to employees and encourage conversations about it.

Once the story is out, the CEO's role is to constantly reinforce the story. Tell the same story again: in every speech, public address or employee meeting. Johnny Thijs, ex CEO of bpost, was famous for telling the same story at every encounter. It had to do with their core business of delivering mail and how it was disrupted. He started with: "People don't write love letters anymore…".

2. Model desired behaviour

Pick a critical few behaviours that exemplify the best of your culture and that you want everyone to adopt. Set an example by visibly adopting these behaviours yourself. Be prepared to go on a personal transformation journey. Consider asking for feedback, getting professional coaching… After all, to quote Mahatma Gandhi's:

For things to change, first I must change - Ghandi

Highly visible acts that people talk about, can help to send a shock wave through the organization. When a core value is 'customer intimacy', perhaps you can single out a few individual contributors and give them public praise for what they did to make a difference for customers.

3. Build a strong top team

Assess the ability and motivation of C-suite executives to play their role in the cultural change. Invest time to help them understand the cultural gap to close. Challenge them to live the company values. Encourage discussions about cultural issues. Share feedback amongst the top team on walking the talk with regard to behaviour aligned with the desired culture. Hold them accountable for setting the example.

4. Get personally involved

Roll up your sleeves and make sure people see you put your personal energy into the culture initiative. You could for example wander around the offices in an unstructured and random manner and share appreciation for employees demonstrating behaviour aligned with company values. For more info, see the toolkit "Recognition By Walking Around (RBWA)".

Koen Schreurs
Helping HR & Management to boost company culture & engagement

Sources: McKinsey, PwC Strategy&








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HR News: CEO’s role in driving company culture
CEO’s role in driving company culture
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