CEO as Chief Culture Officer: How Top Execs Create Lasting Cultures

James D. Ludema & Amber A. Johnson Change, Culture, Ethics, Leadership, Return on Values, Values-Driven Leaders

Creating a positive workplace culture requires the full attention of the CEO, as companies like Tasty Catering know.

Creating a positive workplace culture requires the full attention of the CEO, as companies like Tasty Catering know.

Culture Creators & Culture Sustainers

NOTE: The following is an excerpt from Making Values Meaningful, a new e-book published by the Center for Values-Driven Leadership. Download your free copy at



The first and most important thing you can do to create a values-driven organization is to make values and culture a central task of leadership. In his book Organizational Culture and Leadership, management guru Edgar Schein claims that leaders are the main architects of culture. Through their words and actions, leaders create, embed, evolve, and sustain their company cultures. In turn, culture drives performance.

We all know this to be true. Employees are constantly watching senior leaders to see what they say, what they do, where they invest their time and energy, and what they support, promote, and reward. People want to know, “Do my senior leaders really walk the talk? And if they don’t, why should I?”

Schein lists twelve things a leader does to build culture. He calls the first six “primary embedding mechanisms” and the second six “secondary articulation and reinforcement mechanisms.” We call them Culture Creators and Culture Sustainers.

Culture Creators

  • What leaders pay attention to, measure, and control;
  • How leaders react to critical incidents and organizational crises;
  • How leaders allocate resources;
  • Deliberate role modeling, teaching, and coaching;
  • How leaders allocate rewards and status;
  • How leaders recruit, hire, fire, and promote.

Culture Sustainers

  • Organizational design and structure;
  • Organizational systems and procedures;
  • Organizational rites and rituals;
  • Design of physical space and buildings;
  • Stories about important events and people;
  • Formal statements of organizational philosophy, creeds, and charters.

As a leader, the best way to make your values meaningful is to invest time, money, energy, and intellect into building a values-driven culture. Senior leaders in the most successful values-driven companies we’ve worked with see themselves as “Chief Culture Officers,” no matter what else is printed on their business cards. They take primary responsibility to ensure that Schein’s culture creators and culture sustainers are alive and well throughout the organization:

  • They actively participate in onboarding, mentoring, training, and coaching;
  • They apply resources, hire, fire, and promote to support and reinforce the values;
  • They are constantly telling stories and recognizing people who put the values into practice;
  • They promote dialogue about the values in senior team meetings, company-wide events, and through all communication channels;
  • They use the values to evaluate company decisions big and small;
  • They proudly post the values in their offices, on their company
  • merchandise, and in visible public places;
  • They use the values to set strategy and build customer relationships; and
  • They relentlessly make sure that the values are integrated into every system and process of the organization.

As Schein points out, when senior leaders assume the role of “Chief Culture Officers,” it pays off. In a recent study of a major healthcare system in the Midwest, our colleagues Dr. Prem Mony and Dr. Marie DiVirgilio discovered that when the senior leadership team led the charge to build a culture based on shared values of commitment, collaboration, excellence, courage, authenticity, and transparency, it generated more respect, dialogue, alignment around vision and direction, and resource sharing across the organization, which led in turn to increased performance and business results.

tom walterTo see a great example of how one CEO transformed his company’s culture, check out this video featuring Tom Walter of Tasty Catering. In the video, Tom describes how he turned the development of the culture over to a team of employees who designed and implemented a culture built around core values, audacious goals, and a unifying purpose. Team members began using the language of the values to guide their decisions and shape interactions. As the culture transformed Tasty Catering, Tom’s business cards were transformed too. They now read Chief Culture Officer.
MVM 3D image book stack cropJames D. Ludema, Ph.D., is the Director of the Center for Values-Driven Leadership and a Professor of Global Leadership at Benedictine University. Amber A. Johnson is the Center’s Chief Communications Officer and a Senior Research Associate for the Center’s Return on Values research initiative. They are the authors of Making Values Meaningful: A Menu of Options for Senior Leaders, which is available for free download at

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