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Published: May 28, 2013
 / Summer 2013 / Issue 71

 
 

Culture and the Chief Executive

Can Great Leaders be Tender and Tough?

Douglas Conant describes why it’s crucial for executives to be tough-minded on standards and tender-hearted on people.

Eternal but Focused Vigilance

Your role as a cultural leader starts on Day One of your appointment as CEO. It will not end until the last day you hold that office. Indeed, your persistence in emphasizing the right cultural behavior will continue to be influential after you have left.

Because cultures evolve in informal ways that are hard to track, they can easily degrade before many people are even aware something bad is happening. Chief executives in peak-performing companies almost never let this happen; they work hard to keep an eye on the critical few behaviors over time. You can either keep promoting the same few behaviors, as Southwest Airlines did, or, after the first few have taken hold, pick a few more to model and support.

In many great organizations, a kind of cultural vigilance baton is passed from each CEO to his or her successor. At Southwest Airlines, for example, it passed seamlessly from cofounder Herb Kelleher to incoming CEO James Parker and president Colleen Barrett in 2001, and  then to incoming CEO Gary C. Kelly in 2004. Each new chief executive is deliberately charged with keeping the company’s fundamental cultural identity intact (while helping the company evolve to meet new competitive and market dynamics).

This rich cultural identity is part of the competitive advantage of leading organizations such as the Mayo Clinic, Apple, Procter & Gamble, and IBM. When it slips, because people grow complacent or lose touch, the CEO is expected to step in and reignite the enthusiasm and vigor that were part of the culture originally—as Conant did at Campbell’s and as Meg Whitman appears to be doing at Hewlett-Packard.

Things Only the CEO Can Do

Most chief executives are master delegators. Some believe, as one chief executive we know puts it, that successful delegation is the single most important skill that a developing leader needs. “It is the only way a rising leader can handle increasing responsibilities, and the best way to develop subordinates.”

For the most part, we agree—except when it comes to the CEO’s cultural impact. The activities described in this article should not be assigned to others. Leaders who delegate too much will lose their opportunity to become role models and energizers for the culture they want to shape. For example, you should be personally involved in selecting the new behaviors needed by the company. Your choice should reflect the company’s strategic and operating priorities, in a way that others throughout the company can comfortably align with. However, getting down to a few critical priorities will almost always be a judgment call you need to make, because no choice will be easy to defend.

Only you can interact with others on your own behalf. Only you can speak regularly for yourself with people throughout the company, informally and outside normal channels. When incoming CEO Jack Rowe launched a turnaround journey at Aetna Inc. in 2000, he kept in direct personal contact with nearly 100 leaders in multiple levels and functions. These informal networks not only brought him up to speed on the way people thought about their work and the practices they followed, but became viral spreaders of the culture he wanted to evolve.

Because you, as CEO, have the final word on most strategic and operational decisions, the most critical aspects of cultural impact—selectivity, simplicity, and targeted persistence—are in your domain. Moreover, your role as cultural leader is, more likely than not, the single thing you will be most remembered for. That’s why so many CEOs refer to culture as their highest priority; it is the primary vehicle for establishing their legacy. 

 
 
 
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