7 Questions Every CEO Should Ask About Culture

For a great organisation, culture isn't an abstract or vague concept … it's real … it speaks to people. It's not a competitive advantage … it's a competitive imperative.

Insights from "The 7 Questions Every CEO Should Ask About Culture" by John O. Burdett, Orxestra Inc., © 2018.

1. Does your team regularly have a vibrant culture conversation?

Culture is the often overlooked, all­-pervasive, enterprise­wide, organisational DNA that dictates whether your strategy lands or if your brand sustains.

It's "a way to be" shaped by the past but continuously honed by the emerging business, social, economic, political and customer context.

2. Do you spend as much quality time on culture as you do on strategy?

It's become popular to use the expression "culture eats strategy for breakfast." It's colourful, catchy, engaging, provocative … and wrong!

In a world of uncertainty, the only thing that is predictable is that your strategy will be "subject to correction". Long after the strategy has been shredded, what will endure is the culture.

The new reality … culture enables strategy.

3. Is there clarity around what has made (and makes) the business successful?

A business exists primarily to create tomorrow's customer. Profit is obviously important but it's ultimately the outcome of doing the former well.

The organisation's culture delivers both the outward­looking (why buy from us?) and the inward­facing (why work for us?) value propositions. Of the two, the latter is more important.

If the brand promise doesn't live inside the organisation it can't live in the marketplace.

4. Are middle managers fully in the game?

No organisation of more than 150 or so people has one single and unified culture. The challenge becomes one of tight­-loose leadership: allow local differences to flourish while, at the same time, develop an overarching 'meta' culture that ensures common values, consistency, connection, collaboration, caring for the customer and an unrelenting commitment to the whole.

And the group that binds everything together is the "middle managers". Moreover, they are the only group that can!

5. Do you measure culture?

If you don't know where you're going … don't be surprised if you don't get there. What we don't know we can't address. It's difficult to raise the bar if you don't know how high it is. It's essential, however, that the culture measurement express, in business terms, where the organisation's culture is (roots) and where the organisation's culture needs to be (wings).

If you don't measure culture, you can't manage it. No less important, culture is strategic. We need to understand both where we are and where we need to be.

6. Are all of the communication channels fully brought into play?

Today is the slowest things will ever be! Culture and change serve and support each other. In the midst of this ongoing tumult the question becomes "Who owns the culture?" The obvious answer is "everyone". A more considered answer might refer to the Board, the CEO or even the top team.

However, perpetuated through a need for inclusion, self-protection and loyalty to one's immediate group, it is the fluid and highly adaptable informal networks. And who "feeds" the informal organisation? Middle managers.

7. Do you hire/promote with "tomorrow's" culture in mind?

The world of work is changing and the very definition of "a job" is, perhaps, changing most of all. Into this maelstrom rides talent management. The metaphorical quarterback of talent management … who and how we hire.

Getting culture on the right track means identifying the right candidate. Not every now and then … but every time.

Who you hire determines what's possible.

John O. Burdett

John has extensive international experience as a senior executive. As a consultant he has worked in more than 40 countries. His extensive consulting around organisation culture encompasses, literally, some of the world's largest organisations. John's coaching work, meanwhile, embraces a number of international CEOs. His company, Orxestra Inc., enjoys a strategic partnership with TRANSEARCH International.

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