Culture commitments

The chief culture officer role is quickly disappearing

From culture carriers to culture coaches: 3 ways to make culture everyone's job

We may earn a commission from links on this page.
Image for article titled The chief culture officer role is quickly disappearing
Image: robert_s (Shutterstock)

Perhaps your organization has a CEO who is highly invested in corporate culture, like Microsoft’s Satya Nadella or Salesforce’s Marc Benioff and plays a hands-on role in shaping it. Perhaps your head of HR “owns culture” or has delegated it to one of their direct reports, or perhaps your company has a culture committee.

Once an in-vogue role, chief culture officers are disappearing. A review of the websites of the top 50 World’s Most Admired Companies reveals that none appear to have a leader formally in this role today. A LinkedIn search for those currently serving as chief culture officers surfaces not even 500 instances of the role across the more than 75 million companies with a presence on the site.


We think this is a positive development.

Too few people see culture as their responsibility. Assigning culture exclusively to an individual—or even to a team or function—is the surest way to limit its potential as a value driver.


According to our joint research with Fortune, nearly two-thirds of executives at the same World’s Most Admired Companies attribute 30% or more of their market value to culture. Recognizing that value requires that every leader be a chief culture officer.

When leaders see themselves as chief culture officers, it takes away excuses like “HR owns that” or “it’s not my responsibility.” It creates a “see something, say something” effect where cultural issues are flagged more frequently. Shared ownership for culture also places responsibility for activating culture with the same individuals who activate business strategy, forcing tighter alignment between the two.

3 ways to increase ownership of company culture

Building an organization full of chief culture officers who take the role seriously means preparing leaders to do these three things:


First, leaders must be culture carriers. At the individual level, they must embody the organization’s values and be highly conscious of the impact of their emotions, words, and behavior on others.

There are few demonstrations of “culture carrying” more potent than Satya Nadella’s actions following his damaging comments about gender pay gaps. Having recently declared the importance of moving from a “know-it-all” to a “learn-it-all” culture at Microsoft—with growth mindset at the core—he had an opportunity in how he responded.


In his 2017 book Hit Refresh, Nadella wrote, “I was determined to use the incident to demonstrate what a growth mindset looks like under pressure.” Nadella quickly sent an email telling employees he had “answered that question completely wrong,” shared what he had done to explore his own biases, and asked the executive team to do the same. His willingness to “learn it all” from an unfortunate mistake made him an authentic culture carrier and made it okay for others to do the same.

Second, leaders must be culture coaches. At the team level, leaders must navigate diverse values, assumptions, and behaviors and decide which to normalize and which to discourage. This role is almost instinctive for Ken Keller, president and CEO of Daiichi Sankyo, Inc. and head of its global oncology business. His team knows that culture is Ken’s No.1 priority – and that he expects it to be theirs, too.


At his most recent leadership offsite, he engaged his team in designing a culture of fearlessness needed to drive breakthrough innovation on behalf of patients and anointed another 50 chief culture officers in the process. As one team member said, “Ken’s words were ringing in my mind as I flew back home: Focus on the one thing that only you as a leader can do – build the culture!” It is hard to deny the link between Ken’s intentional culture coaching and the oncology unit’s performance.

Third, leaders must be movement makers. The return on culture is greatest when leaders go beyond themselves and their teams to create shared identity, norms, and expectations at scale. Being a good chief culture officer, therefore, requires joining forces with other leaders in architecting and nurturing a culture movement that captures team-level momentum and translates it into an organizational tipping point.


But isn’t it true that if everyone owns something, no one owns it? This is only a risk if responsibility for culture isn’t accompanied by accountability for culture.

Organizations that are making the “every leader a chief culture officer” model work are measuring leaders on both what they accomplish and how they accomplish it. In some cases, companies tye bonuses and incentives to their team’s cultural profile, the retention of their direct reports, or other indicators like the degree of psychological safety employees feel in their organization.


Although every leader is a chief culture officer, different layers of leadership have different degrees of responsibility, with ultimate accountability resting with the senior team. If you are looking to help leaders fully embrace the chief culture officer role:

  • Add culture to every job description. Leave no doubt about what is expected and discuss it at every stage of the screening process.
  • Create self-aware leaders. Offer 360-degree assessments and more frequent feedback-giving – coupled with development tools—to help leaders be more intentional about how they show up and their impact on others.
  • Embed culture into strategic planning. As part of your standard process, build in an opportunity for every leader to answer the question, “What will you do to ensure that the ways of working on your team are helping to accelerate business strategy?” and commit to concrete actions.

When asked what the most powerful lever for shaping corporate culture is, 84% of the World’s Most Admired Companies executives said “leader role modeling.” Consider what would be possible at your company if every leader modeled a chief culture officer.

Neil Barman is a senior client partner and Sarah Jensen Clayton is a senior partner & global lead, culture, change & communications at Korn Ferry.