Over the past two years, CEO Exclusive has been on this arc towards talking about culture and how the CEO guests create cultures that lead to high performance in their companies. In fact, about 50% guests have been either on the Atlanta Journal Constitution’s Best Places to Work or the Inc. 500, 5000, or the Atlanta Business Chronicle’s Pacesetter’s list, so they’re really delivering high financial performance.
What I’ve noticed as we continue to have these conversations is that discussion about culture tends to be aspirational. Guests will speak very eloquently about their core values: integrity, customer service, excellence, innovation—for example. To move our thinking and discourse on CEO Exclusive forward, one of the things that I’ve started asking fairly frequently on the show is about the gap between these values that are espoused by management and what’s really happening in the organization.
Maybe I’m cynical, but I suspect that aspiration and reality are never perfectly aligned. So, on this week’s show, I discuss the gap and its implications. Today I’ll share two examples and discuss recommendations. Yes, I’m a consultant, after all—I can’t help myself.
Example 1: The Nightmare Scenario
This question of the gap is very, very real. Very well-meaning leaders sit in their corner offices, thinking they have their finger on the pulse of the pulse of their employees, when they could be wrong. Dana Spinola with Fab’rik, when I asked her about this gap, said “This is the number one question right now that CEOs are sitting around, trying to solve.” The difference between what’s espoused by management and what happens in the real lives and behavior of the employees is the question.
Why is it so important? Authenticity. The pitfall of keeping the discussion about culture at the aspirational level on the show is that it puts us (and our guests) at risk of being really in-authentic. The nightmare scenario for me is: I have a guest on the show and they spend half of the show talking about fairness and integrity and then there’s something that comes out later that they’re using child labor in China. Or, they talk about how much they value their employees, and then some disgruntled employee starts to talk about this particular company or CEO on social media. And that’s really a nightmare scenario for me.
And, guess what? It may have already happened. Last week, I got an email from a disgruntled community activist. Subject: I Believe You Interviewed Mr. XXX with YYY Company on Your Program. The email included complaints about the CEO and his handling of the environment. Oh, brother. At least, it seems like the reach and number of people listening to CEO Exclusive must be growing.
Certainly, I’m not an investigative reporter, and I have no interest whatsoever in making my guests look bad. I’m not going to run after every gripe sent in by listeners. But, it’s also really, really important for CEO Exclusive to be authentic and credible. The only solution here is to turn this into an opportunity and a differentiator. Hug the monster. We have to start talking about the dark side of culture.
Of course, I know that the CEOs listening will absolutely love it, because it’s real, and we all have this problem. The challenge, for me, is that guests absolutely hate it. To ask a CEO to discuss openly instances when their culture has gone bad, it’s a big ask. But you know what? That’s my job. That’s what we’re supposed to do here at CEO Exclusive, and that’s why you’re going to stay engaged.
Example 2: Getting Blindsided
The next reason for delving into the culture gap is that it keeps leaders from getting smacked on the back of the head. Proactively looking at where your culture is misaligned can help you get ahead of potential problems. On the show with PJ Bain, which has been one of our most popular shows, he talks honestly about what being blindsided looks like, stating, “I’m dealing with an issue where one of our executives within the business has been lying to me and we’re in the middle of an investigation.” Ugh.
What’s in that gap can be really ugly. So, since we know the gap is there, think about how to measure it because that’s how you’re going to be able to get ahead of it and manage it for yourself, as well. Measuring culture is something we’re getting really excited about on my team. What are the behavioral indicators associated with the culture you want to create? If integrity is one of your core values, how would a fly on the wall look at an employee and see that they have integrity, as you define it.
Ultimately, we’re advocating a quantitative approach to culture, conscious capitalism, purpose and these other aspirational concepts that CEOs want to use to lead their businesses. You can manage what you can measure. This is how leaders can be authentic, and more importantly, understand where they (and their organization) are being inauthentic. No CEO or company or culture is perfect. It’s important that we are honest and humble about this on CEO Exclusive and encourage our guests in this direction. Understanding the dark side of culture is ultimately how we truly achieve the aspirations we set in the first place.