Your CEO Doesn’t Care About Culture. Now What?

One of the most frequently-asked audience questions I receive is, “What can I do to build my team’s culture when my CEO doesn’t care, or doesn’t make positive culture-building a priority?”

In answering that question, I always start by reminding my audience that a CEO who cares little for building a positive workplace culture is actually creating the culture that they want.  It may be a toxic, or political, or distrustful, or work-life imbalanced culture – but it’s still a culture built on the actions (or lack thereof) of the Chief Executive Officer.  If the CEO wanted something different, they’d have created something different. It’s a simple but powerful truth.

Herein lies the essence of culture-building: it’s 100% on the CEO.  

The decision to build a specific company culture must start with the top. The CEO is the only person in the organization who can demand that the company’s focus, team and resources come together to produce a culture that he or she desires to create. True, any leader or manager within the organization can create “pockets of resistance” and build a distinct micro-culture, but that team will always face cultural headwinds that are tough to escape.  It likely won’t be enough.

Back to the question at hand – what should a progressive, culture-focused leader do if their CEO isn’t at all concerned with building a positive culture? If it’s important enough to them, they should probably seek employment elsewhere.  If a lack of leadership focus on culture is not a deal-breaker, they can dig in and do their best to shape their team’s culture as an outlier from the larger organization, knowing full well that they’re going to constantly battle negative pressure to abandon what they’ve built.  It’s a battle that will wear most managers out.

“Quit, and go work for someone who cares about building a positive culture.” My answer is often met with audible gasps from the crowd.  People will ask me if I’m giving them a serious answer. I assure them, I am – one-hundred-percent.  If a manager within a company buys into the growing body of research that correlates positive workplace cultures with faster revenue growth and more profitable companies, but works for a company whose CEO cares little for that line of thinking, then they have two choices: quit, or swim upstream for years.  

I know what I’d do.

There’s not a “perfect” workplace culture. There are plenty of high-growth, high-profit companies out there who grind people to a pulp.  There are lots of no-growth, low-profit companies with feel-good employment practices. My point is that it’s the CEO who gets to decide the outcomes for which they are optimizing.  If you’re working for a company whose CEO is optimizing for growth at the expense of employee well-being, then you have a decision to make.  

It’s that simple.