Aon, Booz and Mercer: Chief Culture Officer more important

27 September 2012

The Chief Culture Officer (CCO) is becoming an increasingly important asset for companies. And as a result, more companies are appointing someone to keep an eye on their culture. This is evident from recent “Point of Views” of consulting firms Aon Hewitt, Booz & Company and Mercer. The consultants warn, however, that more is needed for success than simply adding an additional person to the C-Suite.

Culture more and more on agenda C-level

According to Ken Oehler, a Senior Vice President at consulting firm Aon Hewitt, more and more companies are trying to figure out how to do define a successful culture, or a high performing culture as it is called by several consulting firms. “There has been a resurgence from our clients: culture has become increasingly important during the recession and post-recession”. Many companies, Oehler says, realize that “macroeconomic pressures have created a dysfunctional culture, one that does not support business performance moving forward. As a result companies are trying to figure out how keep their culture from spinning out of control”.

One way to do this is by bringing someone into the C-Suite whose job it is to keep an eye on culture. The best-known example of this approach is Google, who in 2006 appointed Stacy Sullivan as “Chief Culture Officer”. Part of her job was to protect key parts of Google's scrappy, open-source cultural core as the company evolved into a massive multinational.

Board meeting

Appointing Chief Culture Officer insufficient

Jon Katzenbach, a senior partner at strategy consulting firm Booz & Company, warns that creating a new function certainly is not enough. “One person can never be the safeguard of a corporate culture”, the consultant says.  In addition, a CCO is often only considered relevant in times of big changes, which is a risk: “Most companies hire someone for the top to monitor culture if they're expecting dramatic changes, say, a series of mergers and acquisitions. But the most insidious changes rarely happen during times of crisis. Cultures that encourage inappropriate behavior tend to emerge slowly and quietly over a period of years, usually when firms are performing well.  Once these cultures exist, they can be enormously difficult to change because they are often invisible to the people involved, because they help support the existing power structure in the firm.”

Full support of top management

To ensure a CCO is effective, the officer would need the full support of the top management. He or she would need to have the CEO's listening ear without distancing him- or herself too far from the operational employees that live, breathe, and define a company's culture. Also, board members need to understand that culture can't be controlled top down, says Mel Lowe, a consultant of Mercer.