On a recent, gorgeous spring day, I was eating a sandwich for lunch on a park bench when a well-dressed businesswoman sat down next to me. She smiled, acknowledged the great weather and asked what I did. I introduced myself and explained that we are strategic leadership advisers. “Funny,” she then said, “that is exactly what we can use. I’m our Chief Marketing Officer,” giving me the recognizable name of her company. I smiled and asked her to tell me more. She began to explain that her company is severely lacking in leadership and teamwork: “It just feels like our leaders don’t have a passion for the business. Is this something you can help us with?”
I gave her an honest answer: “It will depend on the will of your leadership to change.” She asked: “How could we tell?” I responded: “let us talk to a handful of people at different levels of the organization.” She said she thought she could arrange that. As CMO, she had no budget for these interviews but assured me that we had no competition for the work if they moved ahead.. She agreed to secure this commitment for us from the CHRO and did. As we parted ways, my gut told me that this would go nowhere, but I was excited about the opportunity to look at her company’s culture with the possibility of being helpful.
It did not take me long to get to the root-cause of the problem. Everybody I spoke to either had the same observation or brought me to a single conclusion: The entire workforce focused on doing work within defined boundaries, usually written in a job description. Poignantly, it began with the CEO. He was interested in a few things to which he dedicated most of his time, turning down requests for assistance or permission from other executives. This negative behavior had cascaded down through the entire organization over a seven-year period.
The CMO and CHRO anxiously asked me the best way to fix their problem. I responded that I would answer the question substantively and also wanted them to consider a brief risk analysis. The substantive answer was simple. I would meet with the CEO, explain the opportunity for change and explain that he would need to be the first one to take on new behaviors, leading the change effort for his leadership team. They stopped me and asked about working with the broader team — in effect, working around the CEO. I explained, why such an approach would almost certainly not work, especially in a place where there is such an established history of the organization modeling the top guy’s behaviors.
That brought me to the risk analysis. I explained that the CEO might well refuse to cooperate and shoot the messenger as well as the people who sent him. “It takes courage to fight this battle,” I said. So, they asked, “what can we do,” acknowledging implicitly that they would not take this risk. I explained to them that in this type of situation it usually takes the Board to push for successful change that the CEO will embrace. They agreed with my advice but, given their roles, they were not prepared to consult with Board members on this issue. Understandable to be sure.
And so you see the truth of what Pete Drucker observed decades ago: “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.” When the CEO sets culture, it is especially hard to change.