Should Your Company Hire a Chief Culture Officer?

By Candace Coleman, CultureWise Content Manager

The title “Chief Culture Officer” (CCO) surfaced in the business world a few decades ago. One of the first headliners was Stacy Sullivan, the Director of Human Resources at Google whose cofounders gave her the second designation in 2007. Ever the trend-setter, Google recognized the magnitude of the impact of corporate culture on an organization and created a C-suite job to champion the cause.

The idea caught on. It wasn’t long before numerous industry titans jumped on the CCO bandwagon. For big companies with complicated operations and giant workforces, it makes a lot of sense.

But small to medium companies aren’t as complex and don’t have the treasure chests of the marketplace giants. Members of their management teams often wear multiple hats, and many businesses don’t have the bandwidth to add another officer to the mix.

Having a CCO sounds like a great idea, but leaders of moderately-sized companies may wonder if there’s room for a Chief Culture Officer at their boardroom table.

If they prioritize culture in their business, the answer is yes. But they have options about what that looks like.

What Exactly Is A Chief Culture Officer?

A CCO’s job is to inspire, drive, and sustain an organization’s culture. Before considering the need for a CCO, company leadership needs to have a firm grasp of culture’s role and its influence on their business.

Organizational culture is rooted in the behavioral norms of its staff—the day-in, day-out way things are typically done. Culture is displayed in people’s attitudes about their work and their interactions with coworkers, clientele, and other stakeholders. It forms the work atmosphere that determines how a business operates and whether it succeeds.

A strong culture not only boosts employee morale; it positively affects a company’s profitability, productivity, customer relationships, and reputation.

Leaders who understand the power of culture typically have a program in place to reinforce it. If they are committed to an ongoing process to strengthen their culture, they should identify an individual who owns that effort—a CCO.

How Does a CCO Help a Company Succeed?

CCOs are responsible for shaping, teaching, and reinforcing the kind of culture that supports staff and promotes excellence. They closely coordinate with HR and operations to achieve organizational success.  

As Avi Lambert, president of the Lambert Strategy Group, puts it, CCOs should “ensure that evolving strategies, ideas, and initiatives are in correspondence with the company’s overall mission and goals.”

In contrast to the fun perks often listed in corporate culture profiles, the alignment of culture with other key company initiatives is a core business strategy.

Successful CCOs don’t rely on incentivizing employees with ping-pong tables or pizza parties. They strive instead to continuously promote communication, teamwork, and work standards in a positive way that helps people excel.

Ultimately, the culture built on extraordinary behaviors is much more rewarding to team members—and it pays off in multiple ways for the organization.

A CCO helps companies to:

All these things translate to the bottom line.

In The Culture Cycle, Harvard Professor Emeritus James L. Heskett writes that “effective culture can account for 20-30 percent of the differential in corporate performance when compared with ‘culturally unremarkable’ competitors.”

Other studies reveal a strong relationship between constructive organizational culture and financial performance.

Whether it’s healthy, mediocre, or poor, culture has an immense impact on a company. With so much on the line, every business should designate someone to be the CCO.

Who Should Be Your CCO?

Companies can go in several directions to fill this key player’s shoes. Generally, they choose one of three individuals:

  1. Someone who is hired specifically for this role
  2. The HR director or a senior manager in that department
  3. The CEO
Hiring a CCO

An increasing number of companies are taking their culture more seriously, and the CCO job market is keeping pace.  According to ZipRecruiter, the average annual pay for this position in the U.S. is close to $78,000 as of May 2021, and there are CCO job listings throughout the country.

Business leaders who have the budget to hire a CCO will have no problem finding people interested in the job. But employers should look beyond strong resumes when selecting someone to fill this role.

A CCO should be able to think from the perspective of the owner or CEO and understand the company they’re trying to build.

TalentCulture CEO Meghan Biro offers this advice for leaders:

“Hire a Chief Culture Officer and empower that person to think like you, react like you, sense like you. You need a virtual twin to make culture work, so go all in and find the person who understands your vision.”

The HR Pro

The advantage of placing an in-house senior HR staff member in this role is that they already have a bird’s-eye view of the company’s culture. They would go into a CCO position with a firm understanding of the strengths and areas that need improvement in their workforce.

While it sounds like a perfect fit, adding the CCO title to an HR executive’s door has some drawbacks. An individual with exceptional skills in ensuring regulatory and legal compliance, smooth payroll operations, and managing benefits may not have the skillset to effectively build and maintain company culture.

And a culture initiative requires a consistent, ongoing focus. It can’t be turned on and off as other issues need attention. If an HR person is given the responsibility of being a CCO, they must prioritize it.

The CEO

When company presidents or CEOs are considering who should be their Chief Culture Officer, they might want to look in the mirror. No one knows a company more thoroughly or can envision what it will take to succeed better than the person at the helm. In fact, the culture in most businesses reflects the leader’s behavior and ethics.

“That doesn’t mean they have to do everything,” CultureWise CEO David Friedman explains. He maintains that once the CEO initiates a culture program, the operational aspect of maintaining an organization’s culture should be part of every manager’s role.

“But the CEO must be the one who is most passionate about the culture and works to ensure it is one of the company’s biggest corporate priorities.”

Giving the CCO the Keys

Freidman believes the person leading the company should also lead its culture because they have the power to ensure that everyone takes the company’s culture seriously.

“No one carries the same political or emotional clout as the CEO.”

If someone else is appointed in the role but isn’t given the power to carry it out effectively, they will simply be perceived as a cheerleader or mediator.

Leadership expert Dr. Kim Hoogeveen writes, “CEOs who choose to delegate culture development and protection to another must recognize the importance of giving that designated executive the power to hold others accountable regarding employee interactions and cultural standards.”

The CCO ties culture with business practices to create a more productive environment. All company executives must buy into the importance of the CCO role for two main reasons:  

  1. Without lateral respect and collaboration, the CCO can’t effectively align culture with operational goals, hindering organizational success.
  2. If a CCO’s fellow executives don’t follow their protocol to enhance culture, the rest of the staff won’t either. For a culture initiative to work, C-suite members must be united in their support of the person in charge.

Follow the Culture Leader

Whether or not a CEO technically holds the title of Chief Culture Officer, their staff will look to them to model the company’s culture. As Booz & Company senior partners Jon Katzenbach and DeAnne Aquirre point out in strategy+business:

“The CEO’s direct engagement in all facets of the company’s culture can make an enormous difference, not just in how people feel about the company, but in how they perform.”

Employees will emulate their leader’s enthusiasm and participation in the culture; they will also follow a poor example. If a CEO doesn’t consistently live up to the company’s cultural standards, the staff will assume the standards aren’t that important.

In Culture by Design, David Friedman takes a deep dive into why CEOs need to lead by example in their company’s culture. He advises:

“As a leader, you obviously don’t have to be perfect. However, you should be an excellent example of the culture you’re trying to promote, or you’ll be undermining your efforts.”

And Friedman stresses that a CEO’s involvement with their organization’s culture starts at the beginning. He explains:

“Since culture is such an enormous factor in any organization’s success, as leaders we should be purposeful and intentional, and even systematic, in our approach to it. We should create the culture we want, rather than live with the culture that emerges by default.”

Friedman challenges CEOs to assume “sponsorship” of their company’s culture. Doing so includes:

  • Defining behaviors that will make the organization successful,
  • Initiating a program to reinforce those behaviors
  • Engaging everyone in the company to fully participate in the culture initiative

As the culture’s sponsor, the CEO remains the driving force behind the initiative and can empower others in their company to keep the momentum going.  

Learn more about how to build, operationalize, and sustain a high-performing culture by exploring the CultureWise website. A free two-chapter download of Culture by Design is also currently available.

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