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.


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  • 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!

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