High-profile chief executives brought in to deliver rapid results often have an opposite effect. Despite their best intentions, so-called celebrity CEOs can easily undermine performance because of all-too-predictable mistakes. They come in bent on immediate change or raising the stock price. But if they don’t understand the culture they are working with, they end up harming the very organization they set out to strengthen in an attempt for short-term gains.
While they make headlines, celebrity CEOs and their management team frequently find themselves disconnected from the organization. They’re so intent on making their own mark that they don’t pay attention to conserving key aspects of the organization’s culture. A healthy organizational culture can serve as the foundation for workforce engagement. This is critical for sustaining a business through good and bad times.
Copycat cultures. Mission and values form the core of an organization’s culture and should be authentic and unique in order to afford competitive advantage. Some CEOs make the mistake of trying to replicate the strategies of the market leader or recreate the culture of their last firm without regard to the culture already in place.
Communication breakdowns. Some CEOs think they can conduct a few town hall meetings and call it a day. Leaders at every level must actually state and re-state what the organization stands for as well as the strategy and values. Otherwise the CEO risks being tuned out and the impact of the message ignore d. Most employees end up thinking the speech is just for the sake of investors and analysts, not core to the organization’s mission.
Hypocrisy at the top. Actions speak louder than words, and a CEO’s failure to exemplify core values will not go undetected. Though most employees do not feel safe challenging their leaders’ decisions and behaviors, employees tend to take stock — and move on if they perceive hypocrisy at the top.
Forgetting the team. Culture cannot be successfully changed and sustained without help from the front lines. But frequently mid-level managers are held accountable for business results only and culture issues are left the responsibility solely of senior leadership or the HR department.
Empty labels. Integrity, respect, customer-first, innovation, risk-taking — values like these are the core of organizational culture. New CEOs are sometimes unable to make these intangible terms real for employees throughout the organization. The definitions, not the labels, shape employee behavior.
Every organization has a culture, whether leaders actively shape it or not. If cultivated around a compelling mission and core values, culture can be a CEO’s secret weapon. If ignored, an organization’s culture can undermine new ideas for growth, spit out the people who don’t fit and survive long past the celebrated leader who chose to misjudge its importance.
Christopher Rice is CEO of Blessing/White, a global management consulting firm founded in 1973 and based on Orchard Road, with offices in Austrailia, London, San Fransisco, and Chicago.
Rice earned simultaneous bachelor’s and master’s degrees in economics and Slavic languages from the University of Pennsylvania in 1976. He also has worked for Prentice Hall, Xerox Learning Systems, and the Gallup Organization.