Chief Culture Officer: A book review by Bob Morris

Chief Culture OfficderChief Culture Officer: How to Create a Living, Breathing Corporation
Grant McCracken
Basic Books (2009)

The world outside the corporation: ”the body of ideas, emotions, and activities that make up the life of the consumer”

I read this book when it was first published in 2009 and then read and reviewed Grant McCracken’s more recent book, Culturematic: How Reality TV, John Cheever, a Pie Lab, Julia Child, Fantasy Football . . . Will Help You Create and Execute Breakthrough Ideas. Of all the observers of the contemporary business world and, especially, of the evolution of workplace culture, I know of no one else who sees more and sees more deeply than he does. Here’s a case in point.

Just as Dave Ulrich has been an advocate for several years of adding a chief human resources officer (CHRO) to an organization’s management team, McCracken is determined to add another. As he explains, “That’s what I want to do with this book [Chief Culture Officer]: invent an office and an officer – the Chief Culture Officer, the person who knows the culture, both its fads and fashions, and its deep, enduring structure. I hope this book will be read by two groups: people inside the corporation who want to make the corporation more intelligent, strategic, and responsive, and people outside the corporation who want to turn their knowledge of culture into a profession and a career.”

Years ago, Southwest Airlines’ then chairman and CEO, Herb Kelleher, explained the importance of culture to its success: “Maintaining excellent customer services involves a process of getting people to understand the importance of it to them in their daily lives as well as in others’. We were a little concerned as we got bigger that maybe some of our early culture might be lost so we set up a culture committee whose only purpose is to keep the Southwest Airlines culture alive. Before people knew how to make fire, there was a fire watcher. Cave dwellers may have found a tree hit by lightning and brought fire back to the cave. Somebody had to make sure it kept going because if it went out, there would be very serious problems. The fire watcher was the most important person in the tribe. I said to our culture committee, “You are our fire watchers, who make sure the fire does not go out. I think you are the most important committee at Southwest Airlines.” As current chairman and CEO Jerry Kelly would be the first to affirm, the same can be said of Southwest Airlines today.

These are among the dozens of passages of greatest interest and value to me, also listed to suggest the scope of McCracken’s coverage:

o Dependence on Gurus (Pages 5-15 and 39-40)
o Coca-Cola Company (8-10, 138-141, and 178-179)
o Dan Wieden (17-21)
o Lance Jensen (21-25)
o A.G. Lafley (28-30, 125-127, and 143-144)
o Chris Albrecht (32-36)
o Milton Glaser (36-39)
o Fast and slow cultures and CCOs (41-64)
o Convergence culture and CCOs (61-64)
o CEOs and CCOs (109-112)
o Culture: Breathing out and breathing in (112-117)
o Anthropology (119-120 and 173-178)
o Empathy and CCOs (125-129)
o Branding/Brainstorming (138-143)
o New media (145-150)
o Michael Eisner (155-157)
o Gurus as enemies of culture (161-162)
o Philistines (171-179)

These are among McCracken’s concluding observations: “The corporation has been keeping culture at bay for a very long time. Our job is to manage its new spirit of openness. The best way to do this is to demonstrate the value of what we do, as when we supply critical intelligence, help answer the big questions (what business are we in?), see the significance of shifting [especially disruptive] technologies, read sudden changes in consumer taste and preference, sift the perfect storm of the economy for opportunity and danger, and perform better pattern recognition is the first order of business.

“In sum, we are the first generation, and we have to act like one.”

I presume to add an observation by Peter Drucker: “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.” Members of the “first generation” to which Grant McCracken refers must keep in mind that most of the greatest barriers to change initiatives are cultural in nature, the result of what Jim O’Toole so aptly characterizes as “the ideology of comfort and the tyranny of custom.” It is perhaps possible but highly unlikely that an organization can create and then sustain a living, breathing, thriving enterprise without a CCO who has both authority and responsibility as well as sufficient resources to address “the first order of the day.” Without such a commitment, there will be no second order of the day.

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