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The CEO and Company Culture

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The other systematic asks:

In a recent interview with one of our analysts, a Fortune 500 company’s HR director said (not verbatim) “It’s not HR’s job to define our culture. It’s the CEO’s job. It’s our job to communicate that culture.”

While I understand the position I have to say it doesn’t sit fully well with me. What do you say?  Should HR have more of a voice in defining a company’s culture?

I’m going to say that while both HR and the CEO (or shall we just say the executive leadership) have a role to play in defining company culture, the lead responsibility really goes to the executive leadership.  This is really based on a couple assumptions though – we first need to define “define.”

It’s really up to the executive leadership to set the strategy of an organization (obviously).  Company culture is strictly and often directly tied to the organizational strategy.  If it’s a sales driven organization, high touch customer service, or if innovation is the key that will drive short and long term profits, then there are certain cultural traits that will maximize those strategy drivers.  So for example, if you’re an innovative organization, I’d guess that you’re looking for a team oriented culture that is non-competitive and highly collaborative.  You want people who are not afraid to ask questions, offer up what could be really dumb (on ingenious) ideas.  By setting the organizational strategy, the executive leadership by default sets the company culture.

While I don’t particularly agree that HR’s only responsibility is to communicate that culture, there is certainly some truth to the idea that HR’s role is downstream to the executive leadership.  I’ll say however that it is much more important and much broader than simple communications.  Instead, understanding what the corporate strategy is from the leadership team is, it’s the HR teams role to further define and detail what those specific characteristics of company culture are – the executive leadership team will never get enough into details that HR would have a coherent direction to go in.  What does that culture mean? How is it implemented?  How does HR shape it so that the long term actually results in a workforce with the appropriate values?  All of these are questions that need to be defined with greater detail.

I hate “middle ground” answers, but I’ll have to go with one here.  The CEO absolutely defines culture whether they intend to or not.  HR then further defines what that strategy will look like.

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One response to “The CEO and Company Culture”

  1. The CEO and Company Culture

  2. A company culture is something that is very difficult to describe, let alone create. One of the blogs I read, systematicHR, posted up aninteresting response postwhich covers the top-down flow effect that a CEO has on company culture. I think the closing lines sum it up very nicely: The CEO absolutely defines culture whether they intend to or not.  HR then further defines what that strategy will look like.

  3. Totally Consumed Avatar

    Kind of sounds like hair splitting to me; ‘defining’, ‘detailing’, ‘clarifying’ and ‘communicating’ are all somewhat synonymous and HR touches all of them.

    No matter how you slice it – HR holds a large share of the responsibility pie when it comes to front-line Corporate Culture.