Charting the Course: Your Role as Chief Cultural Officer

By Chuck Violand

February 1, 2016

If your business was a person, what kind of person would it be? What adjectives would people use to describe it? Aggressive or laid back? Calm or energetic? Rigid or flexible? These traits define your company’s culture—the combination of attitudes, customs, and beliefs that distinguishes your company from every other company.

You can see the personality of each founder or CEO throughout their company. That’s to be expected, since the organization grows up around you, is molded by you in the early days, and guided by you at every step as the business matures. The culture each leader creates is a critical part of shaping, operating, and driving their company—large or small. It’s also true whether the company is successful, like Apple under the leadership of Steve Jobs, or has failed, like Enron under Ken Lay.

Everyone in your organization needs to understand your company’s culture. When employees, and even suppliers and business partners, have beliefs or demonstrate behaviors that aren’t in sync with your culture, it can create chaos. On the other hand, when everyone is aligned with your attitudes, customs, and beliefs, every process works more smoothly and in harmony. There are fewer surprises and you are much less likely to have to call someone on the carpet and ask, “Why in the world did you do that?!”

When your company is still small, it’s easy for everyone to understand its culture because they have regular contact with you. And, while it may be invisible to you, your words and actions provide a clear template of the kind of behavior you expect. As the organization grows and that day-to-day contact diminishes, it becomes less clear.

That’s why an important role you must play as the owner of a growing company is that of Chief Cultural Officer. As you transition from routine, operational responsibilities, your job is to set not only the direction of the organization, but also its tone and personality. You need to ensure that every employee understands your company’s culture and how their actions should reflect it.

Many organizations capture this information in a set of value statements. That’s a great reference, but you can’t post a set of values in the break room and expect people to understand and follow them. As the CCO, you need to get face-to-face with employees, identify and affirm when they act in alignment with your culture, and guide them to different behavior when they don’t.

As you progress through the life cycle of your company and your role changes, the hands-on tasks you complete yourself decrease and, instead, you guide others to do them. Most small business owners are accustomed to putting in long, hard days of physical work, which can actually make this transition difficult for them. It can also be difficult for others in your company. Without strong guidance from the Chief Cultural Officer, you may experience internal turmoil that can lead to unprofitability. Left unchecked, you may find yourself at the head of a company you barely recognize as the one you founded.