Response of the Chief Culture Officer

Yes­ter­day, I wrote a post titled, “Let­ter to the Chief Cul­ture Offi­cer.” It was most­ly a poem writ­ten by an imag­i­nary per­son voic­ing the pain of the below-the-water-line orga­ni­za­tion, an orga­ni­za­tion that has just hired some­one into the new role of CCO. Please take a look if you haven’t read yes­ter­day’s post. Today, I want to share a few thoughts about how the tan­gled sys­tem that pro­duced that “let­ter” might be addressed from an insid­er’s role. I hope some of you will join me in this con­ver­sa­tion. I believe there is so much com­plex­i­ty in these sit­u­a­tions that there is no “expert” process, only a set of exper­i­ments and learn­ing on the way toward a dif­fer­ent cul­ture, learn­ing that often takes months and some­times years to unfold. Too lit­tle has been writ­ten about this shift, and I sense many writ­ers and con­sul­tants make rather large promis­es about how fast it can occur based on their own approach. I’ve per­son­al­ly nev­er found the for­mu­la that sim­ple. To the con­trary, I think we need a con­ver­sa­tion here about deep­er orga­ni­za­tion­al tran­si­tions. If we can fig­ure out how to begin this shift from the lev­el of anger, fear and pain expressed in the let­ter, I believe we can make incred­i­ble head­way in many oth­er work­place envi­ron­ments, as well.

So here goes…a few steps to get start­ed focused on the lead­ers of the orga­ni­za­tion Please add your own obser­va­tions and ideas.

1. Com­pas­sion for the sys­tem. I believe this is an essen­tial start­ing point and prin­ci­ple for change efforts, and par­tic­u­lar­ly when there is as much pain as that expressed in the let­ter. Much of this pain is dri­ven by neg­a­tive per­cep­tions and beliefs. There isn’t much in the let­ter that is tru­ly fac­tu­al, yet try­ing to sort out the facts (effec­tive­ly dis­miss­ing the per­cep­tions and feel­ings) isn’t, in my expe­ri­ence, like­ly to be pro­duc­tive. Inten­tion­al­ly mov­ing toward a com­pas­sion­ate mind­set at the begin­ning means putting our­selves into the sys­tem, feel­ing it, under­stand­ing the expe­ri­ence of being with­in it. So some­one try­ing to work on this sys­tem needs to become a kind of vac­u­um, putting aside pre­con­cep­tions, and let­ting it all enter at a per­son­al lev­el. What is it like to live with­in this sys­tem — find­ing out not just with your mind, but also your heart and soul?

2. Fol­low the clues. In the let­ter there are clues to issues that pos­si­bly need to be addressed. Despite the point­ed, even per­son­al­ized nature of the words, the let­ter reveals some poten­tial­ly pow­er­ful lever­age points. These points include the fol­low­ing, all worth learn­ing more about:

• incon­gru­en­cy with the stat­ed val­ues of the organization
• lack of under­stand­ing of the CCO’s new role
• engage­ment as some­thing for mem­bers but not lead­ers of the organization
• con­flicts among the leaders
• self-knowl­edge of the leaders
• fail­ure to ask for feed­back, espe­cial­ly where there is pres­sure for more
• siloed struc­tures and communications
• taboos around bring­ing up problems
• long hours, pay cuts, lay­offs dri­ven by greed
• fears of ter­mi­na­tion for not going along or fit­ting in
• peo­ple not talk­ing about what’s going on — with­in the lead­er­ship group
• feel­ings of “tight­ness” and “con­trol” to the point peo­ple feel the sys­tem is “insane”
• dis­re­spect for those doing the work and deliv­er­ing the services
• imper­son­al­ly reduc­ing peo­ple to numbers
• deep fail­ure to see from mem­bers’ per­spec­tives and rec­og­nize their actu­al com­mit­ment and passion
• a sense of being manip­u­lat­ed through plans and programs
• the under­ly­ing unrec­og­nized insight that every­one is respon­si­ble for culture
• faith­less­ness that change can happen
• SOS, a call for help

(These are all themes I’ve heard in orga­ni­za­tions over the last few years.)

By clues, I mean that these may be things that many peo­ple or only a few may be expe­ri­enc­ing. Com­bined, they are worth a thor­ough “sens­ing” process for the CCO and, even­tu­al­ly, the lead­er­ship team as a whole. If I were the new CCO I’d want to do a lot of infor­mal sens­ing on my own. By way of intro­duc­tion, I’d want to talk to peo­ple in all parts of the orga­ni­za­tion, in many dif­fer­ent kinds of roles. I’d enjoy talk­ing togeth­er in the places that are “unof­fi­cial” — in the cafe­te­ria and halls and park­ing lot. I might find enough data from these con­nec­tions to eas­i­ly advise a broad­er, more for­mal sur­vey be con­duct­ed, but I’d shy away from that at first. Peo­ple are noto­ri­ous­ly skep­ti­cal of such sur­veys (they rein­force the sys­tem that needs to change more than actu­al­ly alter­ing it), espe­cial­ly when a gen­er­al­ized mis­trust of lead­er­ship has become the under­ly­ing norm. In my infor­mal “ori­en­ta­tion,” I’d look for gen­er­al trend-lines and where things were going well and not so well. I would want to answer for myself whether the let­ter writer was speak­ing of some­thing that crossed many inter­nal bound­aries or the prob­lems were local­ized in par­tic­u­lar divi­sions, depart­ments, or teams.


3. Build trust with the lead­ers. Part of build­ing trust involves work­ing through the def­i­n­i­tion of the CCO’s job. What are oth­ers in the C‑suite and oth­er key lead­ers expect­ing? What do they need? What are their own pri­vate obser­va­tions of the place? Per­haps this is a time to seed some ideas and per­spec­tives, share a sys­tems view and build cred­i­bil­i­ty — before dump­ing too much data. Why? Because you prob­a­bly already have plen­ty of clues that full open­ness is not a norm. If you find you are invit­ed into a dif­fer­ent kind of con­ver­sa­tion, great. If not, pay atten­tion. Too much “truth” too ear­ly often leads to defen­sive­ness; defen­sive­ness dri­ven by anger, frus­tra­tion, or embar­rass­ment. So it’s frankly insen­si­tive to push it. Such “truth” alone does lit­tle, espe­cial­ly if it is viewed as a per­son­al attack. Build the rela­tion­ships first. 

4. Cre­ate forums for the lead­ers to learn more about sys­tems think­ing and cul­ture. For the pur­pos­es of this post, I am assum­ing the data I received dur­ing my infor­mal con­ver­sa­tions rep­re­sents gen­er­al­ly undis­cuss­able sen­ti­ments of many peo­ple, not one or two unhap­py mem­bers or per­spec­tives local to a team. (I’d take a dif­fer­ent course in that event). The goal of this step then would be to help the lead­ers them­selves share their worlds — what they see of the orga­ni­za­tion and point­ing out where they seem to be con­gru­ent and where diverg­ing. I’d call out how the team seemed to be oper­at­ing on this task, any places where they might have seemed com­pet­i­tive to me or in sig­nif­i­cant dis­agree­ment. I’d share my real appre­ci­a­tion to them for every con­tri­bu­tion they chose to make to the exchange. These con­ver­sa­tions can be based on some core ques­tions asked of the group as a whole, such as:

What is the cul­ture you per­son­al­ly believe we have?
What is the cul­ture you have per­son­al ener­gy to work toward?
Strate­gi­cal­ly, how does our cul­ture fit with our brand and vice-versa? 

I’d prob­a­bly throw in some con­ver­sa­tion about Stan Her­man’s cul­tur­al ice­berg mod­el, par­tic­u­lar­ly if peo­ple were not famil­iar with this model. 

Essen­tial­ly, what I would do is wait for the moment when an open­ing occurs, when peo­ple are curi­ous, want to know how oth­ers in the orga­ni­za­tion see things, espe­cial­ly oth­ers not in the room, and actu­al­ly request me to share my obser­va­tions of their cul­ture. I’d be well-pre­pared to offer one or two essen­tial themes. I’d also be pre­pared to share the let­ter along with some oth­er expe­ri­ences, depend­ing on my assess­ment of the group’s readi­ness to lis­ten. I’d present the let­ter as an exam­ple of cul­ture, con­tex­tu­al­iz­ing it and mak­ing it as safe as pos­si­ble to hear. Hope­ful­ly, this would stim­u­late a deep­er dis­cus­sion of what cul­ture is, how far under the skin it can get, and how our own behav­iors are ful­ly part of the sys­tems we inhab­it. I’d prob­a­bly move direct­ly from there to the con­nec­tions between lead­ers’ behav­iors and cul­tur­al norms. It’s a tricky point, and one that also can raise defen­sive­ness, but it is also impor­tant ground, lead­ing inevitably to the ques­tion, “So what do we actu­al­ly do if we want to change the culture?” 

5. Being more than doing. At this stage peo­ple often want a series of action steps, as if cul­ture change is a lin­ear, log­i­cal process. This mind­set both works for and against any real shift. Peo­ple do need to see what action looks like. But it also can lead to resis­tance defined here as ini­tial com­mit­ment to some agreed upon list of steps fol­lowed by their oblit­er­a­tion behind oth­er pri­or­i­ties. Forbes con­trib­u­tor and con­sul­tant, Megan M. Biro, sug­gests lead­ers help mem­bers be able to answer five ques­tions. These ques­tions are direct­ly relat­ed to their lev­el of engage­ment, hav­ing to do with the employ­ees’ sense of pur­pose, trust, loy­al­ty, val­ues, and rewards. This is real­ly good stuff, espe­cial­ly when the lead­ers them­selves gen­uine­ly want to go there. Some­times, how­ev­er, they don’t, revert­ing to over­ly intel­lec­tu­al­ized ver­sions of them­selves and what they “should do,” again cre­at­ing resis­tance. The prob­lem is that such con­ver­sa­tions typ­i­cal­ly do not result in any­thing that actu­al­ly links per­son­al with orga­ni­za­tion­al change — which, to me, is the key to the entire process. Otto Scharmer’s The­o­ry U, for exam­ple, can help peo­ple find that link with­in them­selves. There are oth­er approach­es, too, such as John Wenger’s learn­ing events that are focused on expe­ri­enc­ing role rever­sal and oth­er tech­niques that take peo­ple “Beyond Empa­thy.” The trick in cul­ture change, I believe, is to look for every oppor­tu­ni­ty to bring out, high­light and voice that internal/external link. The sys­tem, the cul­ture, can­not be dif­fer­ent with­out the per­son, the leader being in a way that makes the intend­ed cul­ture vis­i­ble. That’s often a strong, coura­geous and vul­ner­a­ble move. It may mean, for exam­ple, top lead­ers learn­ing how to talk dif­fer­ent­ly to oth­ers, to ask bet­ter ques­tions, to ask for feed­back and sus­tain con­ver­sa­tions about assump­tions and views of one anoth­er. But it is more than a set of skills. It is also a mat­ter of per­son­al growth among peo­ple who care for one anoth­er. Every oth­er part of the “doing” is some­thing that is “done” to oth­ers, a mask­ing tech­nique that main­tains a sep­a­ra­tion of mind, heart and soul between the leader and the led. And it is pre­cise­ly that phi­los­o­phy of of sep­a­ra­tion that cre­ates the very con­di­tions under which all the symp­toms list­ed in the let­ter arise. Until that cen­tral fact is grasped, and we attempt to more ful­ly become our­selves as part of the shift, no mean­ing­ful “cul­ture change” can occur. 

A break­through occurs when we rec­og­nize exact­ly how deep the chasms are we have inad­ver­tent­ly cre­at­ed. Among our­selves, and between our­selves and those we lead. Our very stuck­ness can open the door to a potent change of per­spec­tive, but the stuck­ness must be in evi­dence. We have to feel it, voice it, stay with it alone and togeth­er long enough for trans­for­ma­tion to set in.

What per­son­al growth is pre­cise­ly need­ed and want­ed can only be deter­mined by you and me with­in a sup­port­ive com­mu­ni­ty. We must probe the depths of what it means for any of us to be the “Chief Cul­ture Offi­cer.” The recog­ni­tion comes down to under­stand­ing that we must be CCO of the world with­in us before we real­ly know how to affect the world out­side us. When we get brave enough to open that up, fac­ing inner not just exter­nal chal­lenges, all kinds of change becomes pos­si­ble. But make no mis­take, it is not easy. We have to over­come our inter­nal defense mech­a­nisms, let­ting down our hair, and we’ll have to know where we want our path and des­tiny to take us in a deep­er way. We’ll have to know that we make our world as much as it makes us, that we are our world as much as it is us. We’ll have to come to terms with the chunks the world has tak­en out of us, and the ones we’ve tak­en out of each oth­er. Then, faster or slow­er, through insight and prac­tice, we and the places we lead can real­ly begin to grow.


RSS, email post subscription, search and other functions may be found at the “Further Information” tab at the bottom of this page.

Sign up for month­ly email newslet­ter on reflec­tive lead­er­ship. Here’s the 

Twit­ter @DanOestreich



  • Just love­ly, Dan. I like that you sign­post that cul­ture shift takes as long as it takes. There is no step 1, step 2 lin­ear method; it’s diver­gent and emer­gent. A “set of exper­i­ments” ( I love that) that leads down a pur­pose­ful path of mak­ing work work for every­one. I think I’ll be re-read­ing this arti­cle a few times over the next lit­tle while.

  • Thanks, John. It’s an hon­or to cite your excep­tion­al work here and to wel­come your addi­tions — like your great line about “mak­ing work work for every­one.” Thanks for your inspi­ra­tion and many best wishes.

  • Great arti­cle, Dan. I like your inclu­sion of point #3: Build Trust with the Lead­ers. I’ve seen this be the break­ing point for many sim­i­lar efforts. You’re right in that “full open­ness is not a norm” and it’s hard to make any progress with­out it.

    Thanks for tak­ing the time to write this. It is as well thought out as it is written.

  • Hey Bren­dan, thanks for stop­ping by! 

    Point #3 is a big one for me, too. 

    What, you aren’t imme­di­ate­ly open to hear­ing bad news! What, you don’t want my much bet­ter ideas right now!

    Just cre­at­ing the sense that we are sit­ting on the same side of the table can take some time. We’d advise that approach to any man­ag­er who wants to coach an employ­ee. But it is so tempt­ing some­times to just dis­miss the prin­ci­ple when the recip­i­ent is some­one in a top lead­er­ship role. 

    Aren’t they sup­posed to just “get it”? Don’t they need oth­ers not to waste their time?

    Sure, all true, but often the dead moose on the table is a lit­tle hard to look at all at once.

  • Your replies to the com­ments are as gold­en as the arti­cle itself.

    Thanks, I look for­ward your future posts!

  • Such kind words, Bren­dan. Thank you and I look for­ward to the conversation!

Leave a Reply

Your email is never shared.Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.