There is a piece on HBR Blog on the topic of organization culture “Culture Takes Over When the CEO Leaves the Room” by Frances Frei and Anne Morriss (both HBS professors). It is a good piece worth reading and here's an summary of their ideas:

Excellence = design x culture. Your job as a leader is to get both right. You must build a winning structure for your organization and then foster the often unspoken rules and values that will bring that structure to life.

But if we may be blunt for a second, what the hell is culture? And how exactly do you get any better at it? In short, culture guides discretionary behavior and it picks up where the employee handbook leaves off.

Culture tells us how to respond to an unprecedented service request. It tells us whether to risk telling our bosses about our new ideas, and whether to surface or hide problems. Employees make hundreds of decisions on their own every day, and culture is our guide. Culture tells us what to do when the CEO isn't in the room, which is of course most of the time.

My favorite line is “Culture tells us what to do when the CEO isn't in the room.” I have been studying the ‘creation and nurturing” of organization culture for decades looking for practices and patterns among organizations with highly effective and sustainable cultures. Especially those that were not built on incentives such as stock options and those that were transnational.

It is easy to just look at those service intensive companies (Four Seasons, Starbucks, Zappos, Nordstrom and Southwest etc.) where there is close relationships between service and culture, but I am more interested in looking at culture and their relationships with strategy, structure, purpose and their implications on business performance and innovation effectiveness. Some of the questions I have been exploring include:

  • The first question is does the CEO or the executive management knows what kind of culture they’re trying to build or what are the conditions required for those culture to flourish and key concepts to build from? Or it is simply unintended consequences of the CEO management style or something inherited from previous management? Do you know what you're building towards?
  • The second question is can a company articulate its corporate culture in a way that is both tangible and explicit. A company publishes an annual report about its finances, should they publish a book about the company culture? A company’s prevailing values, mental models, assumptions, attitudes and beliefs all make up the soft, invisible stuff of culture that crate an environment of trust and balance. It determine its outlook—what it finds meaningful and important. Can you capture these stories and communicate them in a tangible way outside a Power Point? And what are the best practices to do this?
  • The third question is when company is attempting a culture transformation; do they need a vision of what they want to become? Is there a genuine need to diagnose their present culture so that they can define the current state and the future state? And if the gap is too big, how do they know if the transformation is too drastic and simply not achievable?
  • The fourth question is when organization culture gives people a sense of self and identity and determines, rituals, beliefs, style, meanings, values, norms and language, the way in which ‘things are done that way around here’, who should own it or is it possible for any function to own?
  • The fifth question is around maintenance. An empowering executive management team can better assess the current status of an organization with an eye to shaping /modifying / eliminating the parts that are dysfunctional or ineffective, then replacing them with qualities that will improve the speed of decision making, productivity, and employee engagement. Corporate culture needs a maintenance plan. Do you have one?

Organization culture is not a vision, mission or management system. It is the strategy that guides how a company makes decisions disregard of what industry they compete in or where they play along the value chain and how decisions are made when the CEO is not around. And in particular today’s fast pace turbulent business conditions, a strong corporate culture can provide the strategic agility and empowerment needed to reduce the recovery time from any unavoidable setbacks or disruption.


Organizational culture is the glue that holds a company today, even when lacking a robust business strategy. Far too many CEOs and executive leadership fail to make the connection between a “hard” strategy and a “soft” strategy and not putting enough effort to make creating, building, and nurturing a winning corporate culture the heart of the company strategy.

“To be an enduring, great company, you have to build a mechanism for preventing or solving problems that will long outlast any one individual leader.”

         - Howard Schultz

"We needed to integrate as a team inside the company so that we could integrate for the customers on their premises.”

         - Louis V. Gerstner, Jr.

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