Eight Tips for CEOs who want a Culture that Drives Success

Amber Johnson Culture, Leadership, Return on Values

Culture post itNot Just a Trend, Focusing on Culture Helps CEOs Drive Results

On the topic of workplace culture, it seems most leaders fall into one of two camps: those that think constantly about culture, and those who never give it thought. Increasingly, the “think about it constantly” camp is growing.

In 2014, Merriam-Webster, the dictionary people, named “culture” their word of the year based on an increase in look-ups and use. Taking a strong, directive role in organizational culture could be seen as “trendy.” The leaders we study know it goes much deeper than that.

“This term culture can be sort of a buzz word today in business,” says Ron Alvesteffer, President of Service Express Incorporated. “You hear of Google and the foosball tables, the air hockey tables, bring your pet to work, do your laundry, do all those fun things.” But, he says, a strong culture is built on more than just fun. “I think where people lose the connection is back to the [idea that] fun drives great business results.”

In the companies we study, the strong cultures drive business results and create an effective, productive workplace. Bob Hottman of Colorado’s premier accounting and consulting firm EKS&H says that after serving as CEO of the accounting firm for years, there is not much that keeps him up at night. “But part of that’s because the single most important thing to me as a CEO in the organization is our culture,” he says. “And if I was concerned that the culture was not totally aligned with where we want to go and our values that would keep me up at night.”

Culture Drives Results

For CEOs who want to take a values-driven approach to business, putting culture first is job number one. Our research through the ROV Project is building the business case to demonstrate that strong, positive cultures do contribute to a more profitable, more sustainable, more successful business. CEOs like Hottman and others know this, and invest significant time and resources in building and shaping culture because it improves outcomes of measurable success.

“Managing the culture is my chief responsibility now,” says Tom Walter of Tasty Catering. Why? Because it’s the clearest leverage point for success he knows.

In a very small company, the founder’s character and personality usually defines the culture of the organization. But as companies start to grow, the culture begins to take on a life of its own. Many leaders find the transition from “the culture is me” to “the culture is a living organism of its own” happens around 50 employees.

Does this let the leader off the hook? Not in the least.

This post is excerpted from our e-book, Do Differently: How CEOs of Values-Driven Companies Spend their Time. Download your free copy.

In every executive interview our research team has done through the Return on Values Project, the CEOs and presidents have made clear that the culture is their business, regardless of the size of the organization. It may have a life of its own, but the CEO takes care to model it, shape it, and celebrate it on a daily basis.

“I think the keys to continue to scale the culture is to make it a priority, and the priority has to come from me,” says Kim Reed Perell of Adconion Direct, now Amobee. “If I don’t make it a priority, then no one else will.”

The days of the corner office earning you a pass on good behavior are gone. Ron Alvesteffer of SEI illustrated this with a story. His father, who had spent his career at GM, came to visit Alvesteffer at SEI’s office, where he saw his son’s car parked in the most remote corner of the lot. “How come you don’t have a parking space right up in front that says President?” he asked his son.

“That’s so old school,” Alvesteffer answered his father. “What, am I going to tell my employees that I have to park up close and I have the shortest walk to the door? They’re the ones doing the real heavy lifting during the day … I’m way in the back there in the leadership lot.” For Alvesteffer and his executives, the choice of parking spots modeled the culture’s focus on service to the entire team.

Change Your Title

The executives we study lead as if their title is not just CEO, but also Chief Culture Officer. Tom Walter of Tasty Catering actually bears that title on his business cards. Bob Hottman of EKS&H says the other partners in his firm sometimes introduce him as the Chief Culture Officer.

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. We’ve noticed several important habits among the high culture/high profit executives we study. These habits reflect management guru Edgar Schein’s research, and include:

  • They actively participate in on-boarding, 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;
  • 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.

Those eight habits are an incredible starting point for executives who want to build strong, positive workplace cultures. The following five tips offer additional, tangible tasks to focus on as you build an organization whose culture is optimized to engage employees and drive success.

  • Stay involved in hiring: meet as many of your company’s prospects as possible, and make final decisions based on culture fit.
  • Become personally involved in new employee orientation, so new team members can hear first about the culture  from you.
  • Hone your story telling skills. Look for stories that illustrate the best of the culture, and share them publicly to celebrate and shape the organization’s efforts.
  • Start rituals or traditions that reflect the culture and can serve as regular reminders of the culture you most desire.
  • Find measures of the culture – such as the Return on Values Inventory, or employee engagement surveys – and learn from the results.

How are you doing this in your own work? We’d love to hear your stories – please share in the comments box below.


Do differently cover with shadowThis post is excerpted from Do Differently: How CEOs of Values-Driven Companies Spend their Time, an ebook by Jim Ludema, Ph.D., and Amber Johnson. Download your free copy at www.cvdl.org/different.

The book features research conducted by CVDL faculty, doctoral students and staff. Learn more about the Return on Values Project at www.returnonvaluesproject.com.

Interested in participating in this sort of research? Visit www.cvdl.org/doctorate to learn more about our executive doctoral program, which allows students can get involved in world-class research.

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