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Who Owns the Culture?

Written by Terri Wallin

For the organization at large, it is the chief executive who owns the culture.  The larger the organization, the more cultures multiply.  Literally from department to department cultures can be quite different depending on the department leader.  In any case, the leader of the organization ultimately owns the organizational culture. 

So how do you accomplish having a similar culture across an organization?  First of all the chief executive officer or executive director must be able to articulate the kind of culture s/he desires and contrast the definition with the current culture(s) in the organization.  Cultures are driven by values and consistency in modeling the values by leaders and ultimately all employees. 

Culture_ownerOnce the desired culture and fitting values are identified, then hiring people with those values who buy into the culture is critical.  It takes tenacity to get the right people in place because sometimes you have to wait a while to find the right person.  You also have to deal with the existing employees who may or may not fit your new defined culture.

Another consideration is global impacts with culture, for example if you have a business in the United States that expands with locations in India or China.  While the values of an organization are similar regardless of geography, the culture of a specific geographic region may impact the overall organizational culture.  The key is to have clear values and criteria for hiring that apply no matter where the organization is located.

In order to have symmetry with all managers and senior leaders alignment is necessary to ensure that the culture is consistent within a department, division, or different geographic location.  Achieving alignment from leaders requires concerted effort starting from the point of hire or promotion.

Changing cultures takes time from 18-24 months up to many years depending on the size of the organization and the number of cultures present.  With mergers and acquisitions the culture becomes important with the deal.  If the cultures are similar, the coming together of the organizations goes more smoothly.  If the cultures are not similar and there is a void of effective leadership the merger happens without cultures coming together, there is incredible infighting often for years, or both situations occur.

Cultures impact recruitment, retention, achieving a vision, getting things done – virtually every part of the organization is impacted by the culture.  If the culture is passive aggressive, then it is like herding cats to get engagement or alignment on an initiative.  If there are multiple cultures within an organization there can be a combination of healthy and unhealthy cultures impacting the ability for the organization to align on goals.  Striving for values that cross all organizations helps in creating a single culture.

In summary, here are 8 ways to ensure a healthy and singular culture:

  1. Whether you are new or in an existing chief executive job, evaluate your culture and determine if it fits for your vision or not
  2. If it fits, evaluate its consistency throughout the organization and all locations
  3. Model the cultural values consistently.
  4. Evaluate your direct reports in terms of buy in to the vision and culture
  5. If an existing direct report doesn’t fit, be clear on expectations or help them with an exit strategy
  6. Hire all employees, including your direct reports for fit to the organization’s values and culture
  7. Inform all employees on cultural and behavioral expectations and consequences of not aligning
  8. Be patient and know that it may take two or more years to enjoy the desired culture

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