Company Culture, From the Top: The Emergence of the “Culture Chief”June 12, 2012 by Jennifer King
According to the Winter 2012 SHRM/Globoforce employee recognition survey, 90% of respondents–which included 770 HR leaders–identified culture management as an important or very important challenge for their organization.
To help address this, a growing number of companies are hiring “culture chiefs,” or adding culture management responsibilities to other roles throughout the company. I recently spoke to three company leaders to learn about their experiences with this emerging role.
Culture Starts at the Executive Level
While some people think every company needs a culture chief, others argue that culture–defined as a “set of shared values, behaviors, and norms”–should fall on everyone within an organization, not just one person. Either way, it starts at the executive level.
Tim Delbrugge, Chief Administrative Officer for Welocalize, recently added culture to his long list of HR responsibilities. After joining Welocalize in 2009, he quickly picked up on some of the unhealthier aspects of the organization in terms of company politics and the lack of transparency.
“I started pushing executives to accept and practice the culture they wanted,” Delbrugge told me. “It’s one thing to have a culture chief for window dressing, but you have to have buy-in from everyone, and the key to that is the CEO. Our CEO has made culture one of our key objectives as an organization.”
Roles, Goals and Metrics
As the company’s first culture chief, Delbrugge is tasked with incorporating the organization’s values into every aspect of onboarding, talent management and employment branding. Measuring the success of such broad goals is a challenge for Delbrugge and anyone in charge of “culture.”
Key performance indicators vary by organization and the priorities for each culture chief, but one that remains consistent and is measurable is employee turnover. Impact Advisors hired Michael Nutter in 2010 as its Director of Firm Culture and Associate Satisfaction–their “Happyologist,” as the company informally calls him–to help sustain the company’s unique culture and low turnover rate as the workforce continued to grow.
“Our founders knew that if they wanted to continue to be successful and meet their growth goals, they’d need someone to help sustain the culture they’d already created and inspire new thoughts to grow it,” says Nutter.
Since he started as culture chief, Nutter created a “Happiness Dashboard” to measure various performance indicators, including turnover rates and happiness ratings based on one-on-one interviews he conducts with new employees.
Not all culture chiefs have the bandwidth or scalability to engage with every employee individually. In order to maintain its culture as the company grows, Adlucent co-founder and chief of culture Nick Herman works with a team of four to consult with every department in the organization to empower leaders to facilitate the company culture on their own.
“We gauge our success when we see the culture scaling and reinforcing itself within the company,” says Herman.
Does Your Company Need a Culture Chief?
In most small companies (and a few big ones), the culture is established by one or more founders or other staff members who have been with the company since its inception. If they’re still there and the company is relatively stable, the culture might not need any dedicated supervision.
But when companies grow rapidly and more employees enter the mix, culture needs to be actively managed. This is also important at times of transitions, such as during mergers, acquisitions or reorganizations, or when key founders or other personnel who helped establish or previously nurtured the original culture depart the company.
“As you get bigger, you have to be more proactive about defending your culture because there are more people and outside influences,” adds Delbrugge.
The Happyologist agrees. In regards to whether any company will ultimately need a culture chief, “I don’t think it’s a matter of if but a matter of when,” he suggests.
Finding a Culture Chief
If your company culture is in need of an intervention, or would benefit from some dedicated attention to help preserve and grow it, here are some traits you might look for in a culture chief:
1. Organizational design and management skills. As a company grows, organizations often need to restructure teams, budgets and responsibilities. A culture chief who understands how a company’s structure influences its culture could be instrumental in managing culture shifts during growth or transitions.
2. Employment branding experience. How prospective applicants and employees perceive your company is critical to instilling your culture internally and communicating it externally as part of your recruiting strategy. One of your culture chief’s roles should be to help shape the messaging of your company’s mission and values to build a strong employment brand.
3. Emotional intelligence. For many companies, the culture chief serves as the eyes and ears of the organization and is a trusted person who employees can consult regarding workplace issues. He or she should be able to connect with employees on an emotional level, and then bring up tough conversations with management or leadership as needed.
Does your company have a culture chief at the executive level? What other traits would you look for in a culture chief?
Thumbnail created by Jennifer C.