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 / Summer 2013 / Issue 71(originally published by Booz & Company)


Culture and the Chief Executive

The Right Behaviors

To help people capitalize on the best aspects of your culture, you have to focus attention on the critical few behaviors that you believe matter most. These are a few positive sources of energy, pride, and interactions that, when nurtured and spread to scale, will improve company performance significantly. As simple as it sounds, this approach will not only accelerate the behavior change that matters most, but also evolve and align your culture more effectively than forcing a major and potentially disruptive culture change effort on a broadly diverse global organization.

These actions are ideally small but repetitive and demonstrably significant. They signal where the company is going now. For example, early in the General Motors Company (GM) bankruptcy recovery effort of 2009, interim CEO Fritz Henderson and a handful of his senior executives launched a series of informal conversations with frontline leaders, skipping all the levels of the hierarchy in between. These examples triggered dozens of imitations, including conversations with customers, among GM employees across North America. Similarly, during a turnaround at the Mobil Corporation in the mid-1990s, then CEO Lucio Noto and five of his senior leaders personally conducted career appraisals of people at various levels whom they saw as “managerial bench strength.” This inspired similar assessment efforts throughout the company. Southwest Airlines, for its part, has continually singled out the same three behaviors: hiring people who connect emotionally with customers and colleagues, volunteering when help is needed at any level, and frugality to the extreme.

Unfortunately, there is no magic formula for finding the right few behaviors that will make a difference in your culture. There are, however, some factors to consider.

First, it is essential to emulate at least some of these emerging key behaviors yourself—to be a living model of the culture you aspire to lead. People pay rapt attention to what the CEO does, not just what the CEO says. You can’t rely on communications, no matter how inspiring. You, and ideally a few other senior leaders, have to step out by behaving in new ways that both capitalize on elements in the current culture and demonstrate a key shift in cultural alignment.

No two senior leaders are alike; what works for one doesn’t necessarily work for another. So do not seek to revamp your leadership philosophy, style, or personality to fit anyone else’s idea of what a leader should be. Instead, as former Campbell Soup Company CEO Douglas Conant put it, “It’s hard for leaders to realize that it’s not about showing up ‘the way I think I’m supposed to show up.’ It’s about showing up in a way that is ‘authentically me’ and can be helpful” (see “The Thought Leader Interview: Douglas Conant,” by Art Kleiner, s+b, Autumn 2012, with video interview by Jon Katzenbach [online only]; the videos are embedded on this page, below).

When Conant first arrived as CEO at Campbell’s, the company was beleaguered by poor quality and newly fierce competitors; he was hired to turn the company around. He knew he was not a master of social conviviality. “Every time I take a Myers-Briggs test,” said Conant, “it shows I’m an introvert.” He knew it would not be easy for him to interact comfortably with a diversity of people throughout the organization, but he had to find a way to do it.

At the time, the Campbell’s “people strategy” emphasized employee health, using an American Heart Association program that encouraged people to walk 10,000 steps every day. So Conant began donning a track suit and pedometer and running around the headquarters building complex in Camden, N.J., every day. Because of his constantly changing schedule, he ran at different times every day, and he made a point of running through different parts of the complex. People never knew when they would see him jogging nearby, but they always knew the reason—he wasn’t checking up on them, he was just getting his 10,000 steps in. This practice gave an introvert a highly visible, easy way to interact informally with people he would otherwise see only at formal meetings, and Conant’s running soon slowed to a walk. “It got to the point where I was so comfortable that people weren’t afraid of approaching me,” he said. He eventually dubbed this practice “management by wandering around.”

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