Culture Begins With a CEO

“Company culture is not an HR function. It comes from the top.” — Dax DaSilva

I saw this quote the other day and, as you know my wont, I stop, paused, rolled the eyes around and gave out a resounding YES, YES.

A waterfall cascades

Like a waterfall, culture starts from the top and cascades down. I often wonder why that is so hard to follow. The bottle neck in organizations has roots in the C-suite. As my work takes me all over the world, I get a peek inside country cultures as well as organization cultures.

I am noticing a lot more talk, but not a lot of action. Culture is now becoming a buzzword. It is joining “agile,” “innovative,” “customer experience” and other, once meaningful terms now on their way to the irrelevance dust bin. All hot words or phrases that have just become overused, unless you are actually doing something about them.

If your policies or procedures are not aligned with your culture, forget about it and move on to something else.

Sponsorship from the top of the pyramid

However if you are really interested, the sponsorship has to come from the top of the pyramid. That is the engine that drives the effort, not HR. Sure we can facilitate, and serve as change champions, but the onus is on the CEO and the C team. They have to live, eat, breathe, and sleep it.

I admire the company WD-40 for a statement on their website:

Please consider employment with WD-40 Company only if you feel as strongly about our values as we do; we live, breathe and play by our values every day.

Their CEO created a video as he talks about the tribal culture in which he tells employees, “We do not make mistakes here we have learning moments.”

I once saw an ad from a health care company that said, “We value our role in nursing a patient back to health as a privilege not a job. If you are just looking for a job, do not apply.” Bold, brassy and not afraid to say who they are. Talk about having a branding statement.

Bold, visionary, and kick ass statements, they both are. But you know what, that is what it takes.

The flip side of words

However the flip side of that is that you see other companies that have beautiful statements that were probably drafted by a conference room committee and are just a bunch of words. Check inside and they are void of action.

I have been screaming from the mountaintop for a while now that this age of people is going to be driven by culture. A bad organization that is clueless about culture will create an environment that is akin to an organ transplant. If the organ is not compatible the body will reject it. This is becoming more prevalent each day. People are rejecting cultures.

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Each time that game changer/star employee rejects you, it ripples through like a rock thrown in the lake.

I had a call with an HR executive a while back who described to me a CEO and leadership team out of control. She said that jobs are going unfilled as posters to Glassdoor are singing at the top of their lungs about the culture. Job offers are declined, and positions are going unfilled.

Horror stories abound, and it makes you wonder, What are these people thinking? I came across a video a while back that I’ve since watched numerous times. In it Howard Behar, the former president of Starbucks, talks about growing a business, but he took a different take on it from so many other leaders.

He said “grow the people” and they will grow the business. For the life of me, I do not see what makes that so complicated.

Attention CEOs and leadership teams: Drive the culture and grow your people, the business will come.

Ron Thomas is Managing Director, Strategy Focused Group DWC LLC, based in Dubai. He is also a senior faculty member and representative of the Human Capital Institute covering the MENA/Asia Pacific region.

He was formerly CEO of Great Place to Work-Gulf and former CHRO based in Riyadh. He holds certifications from the Human Capital Institute as Global Human Capital Strategist, Master Human Capital Strategist, and Strategic Workforce Planner.

He's been cited by CIPD as one of the top 5 HR Thinkers in the Middle East. He received the Outstanding Leadership Award for Global HR Excellence at the World Human Resources Development Congress in Mumbai, and was named as one of the 50 Most Talented Global HR Leaders in Asia

Ron's prior roles included senior HR positions with Xerox HR services, IBM, and Martha Stewart Living.

Board memberships include the Harvard Business Review Advisory Council, McKinsey Quarterly's Executive Online Panel, and HCI's Expert Advisory Council on Talent Management Strategy.

His work has been featured in the Wall Street Journal, Inc. Magazine, Workforce Management and numerous international HR magazines covering Africa, India and the Middle East.