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


Culture and the Chief Executive

Want to Change Your Culture? Run!

Douglas Conant speaks with Booz & Company senior partner Jon Katzenbach about connecting with people more effectively by putting on a pair of running shoes.

We like this example because it shows the importance of enjoying this experience. Most of us will not do something for long if it makes us uncomfortable. It also illustrates the emotional impact that simple changes in CEO behavior can have on others.

You do not need very many senior leaders to start a few critical behaviors rolling through the company. Get several well-known executives to step away from the norms of the past with you. People throughout the workforce will rapidly take notice and do the same, creating an atmosphere of approval and support. In short, by seeking out other early adopters of these behaviors, and working with them directly to sharpen their influence and deploy it more effectively, you will gain far more leverage as a cultural leader.

For example, when Lucio Noto created those new, informal “skip level” staff development opportunities at Mobil, the rumor mill took notice. People all through the company began to do the same. These career appraisals became common practice at multiple levels across the globe. Similarly, when Michael Sabia was CEO of Bell Canada, he started attending small-group working sessions of “master motivators” at the front line, and other executives followed suit. They wanted to see for themselves what he was learning.

Rational and Emotional Impact

More than 100 years ago, Mary Parker Follett wrote about integration in leadership and organizational situations. She contrasted integration with domination (“a victory of one side over the other”) and compromise (“each side gives up [some of what it wants] in order to have peace”). Integration comes about when “there is no curtailing of desire”—both sides in a dispute get all (or nearly all) of what they really wish for. We have yet to hear a better definition for the kind of integration that a CEO needs if he or she is to have impact on the culture.

When putting together a business strategy or a case for action, it’s important to integrate the rational arguments from top leaders with compelling emotional appeals at more personal levels. One without the other is unlikely to sustain cultural alignment. In other words, in addition to a rational business case for change and other formal mechanisms, it’s important to develop emotional impact through such forces as peer approval, the support of colleagues, and the admiration of friends and families.

For most business leaders, a rationally compelling argument is usually much easier to develop than an emotionally compelling one. Executives are used to quantitative analysis and logical reasoning. They understand how to send arguments through well-established formal channels and programs, and they know how to delegate assignments within that system. But emotional energy gets its strength from one’s own intuitive insight and the social support of colleagues. This energy flows through informal networks and cross-organizational interactions outside formal channels. The CEO’s role is to ensure integration of the formal and informal dimensions, so that the emotional energy generated for change is reinforced by a consistent formal accountability for performance and a willingness to pay attention to the metrics that indicate results.

Douglas Conant calls this being “tough-minded on standards but tender-hearted with people.” Early on in his turnaround challenge at Campbell’s, he realized that he would have to replace more than 300 of the top 350 people in the company because they lacked the necessary skills. In discussions and informal conversations, he held firm to this decision, but also openly acknowledged that those who were being replaced were the friends, colleagues, and teammates of those who were staying. Those leaving were treated with respect and given as much help as the company could afford. “Even through that horrible period,” he later recalled, “our employee engagement scores went up.”

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