Three Things I Wish I’d Known About Culture as a CEO

By Anthony Milonas, Board Member

Mid- career, I spent time working in Europe and the idea of culture was something I dealt with on a daily basis. Each of the countries I was working in had its own unique culture that ended up being layered onto the company’s corporate culture in the local branches and offices. Understanding (and respecting) how those two cultures came together and the impact they had on each other became central to my ability to succeed.  But I’m not sure I truly appreciated the impact of culture in the context of an organization until I became a CEO.

Today’s leaders recognize that corporate culture drives organizational performance, but they often don’t know how to optimize their culture to drive results.  Here are three things I wish I’d known about corporate culture when I started as a CEO:

1. Culture is a state of being, not an initiative – and it can’t be delegated.

Culture is a reflection of the values and behaviours of the organization and its people, but it is ultimately the responsibility of the CEO – it can’t be farmed out to your team while you focus on other things, and it can’t be a “side of the desk” effort.

Throughout my career when I became busy, I delegated culture, and the results weren’t great – we each had a different understanding of what the culture should be and how we’d get there. I also wasn’t clear that culture needed to be a priority and so it became a project instead – bouncing on and off the agenda when time allowed. Looking back, I needed to be involved in culture as the leader.  I needed to set the tone and the expectation, I needed to make sure everyone was on the same page, I needed to hire in alignment to culture, and I needed to be an active participant in modelling our culture and making it a competitive advantage.

2. Know the culture you want, and the characteristics associated with it, and then hire for those characteristics.

Hiring for technical expertise is important, but technical skills don’t lead to good culture. Leaders today need to balance hiring people who can do the job, with people who align to the organization’s purpose and who can help take culture and performance to the next level. At Waterstone, we call it hiring for culture add.

In my role as CEO, I thought that if I was enthusiastic, visible in the field, and responsive to my people (all attributes we’d identified as core to the culture we wanted to have at the organization), that the rest of the company would catch on and follow my example.  Some did; but, where we’d hired team members who were technically strong but misaligned with the company’s fundamental values, those modelled behaviours were less likely to stick.

3. Culture can be scaled (provided the first two things are done right).

Your corporate culture will evolve and grow – the trick is to have that growth be intentional and in line with your goals. Scaling culture effectively requires measuring it (not just engagement) regularly. Knowing where your culture is today, where you want it to be tomorrow, and where you are on the path to change will help you scale culture as you grow.

Looking back at all of the cultures I’ve been part of, a few common themes stick out: the culture and our values were well defined and everyone knew what they were; people were engaged; there was alignment to our purpose; the leaders cared about the culture and their people; it was part of the hiring process (e.g., we did TTI assessments and focused on the key characteristics); and it was measured.

As CEO, culture is part of your job. It can’t be delegated, it must be nurtured, and it can (and will) grow and change. If you take an active role in building and sustaining that culture, it can absolutely help drive performance and be your competitive advantage.

At Waterstone Human Capital, we work with leaders every day to help them define, assess, transform, and measure corporate culture. We’d love to talk about your culture and how we can help you take it to the next level. Book a meeting with our team today.