The CEO is the CCO – Chief Culture Officer

John Chambers

Whether your business is large or small, if you are the CEO, you are also the CCO—the Chief Cultural Officer. Culture matters – it is what makes the difference between a thriving, profitable, and growing business and one that is lethargic and struggling. The CCO who takes on the creating, shaping, and development of the company’s culture will see a highly productive and happy workforce who produce significant bottom line results.

What defines a company’s culture?  
It includes three important elements:

  • Identity:  The company’s history, logo, image, language,  location, and the like
  • Values & Principles: Beliefs, core values, and underlying principles
  • Productive Energy:  Is it a TGIF culture? Or is it a TGIM culture—one where the workforce is eager to get to work on Monday, take risks, go the extra mile, and collaborate to help the customer? Are they excited to be at work?

 For 25 years, I have measured companies’ productive energy and have concluded that all things being equal, the company that has a productive energy level of 80+% will outstrip the competition every time.

Company cultures don’t just “happen”. They reflect the personality, leadership style, values, vision, and preferences of the CEO and their senior leadership. There is a 1:1 correlation between the CEO’s beliefs, behaviors and attitudes and how the workforce behaves.

The Role of the CCO – Chief Culture Officer
To excel, it is the CEO’s job to be the Chief Cultural Officer, which is far more difficult than handling the financial, product/service, marketing, or customer ends of the business.

Here are some things the CEO can do to fulfill this role:

  • Creating: The CCO decides what type of culture the organization is going to have—command and control, transactional, or collaborative? Will it value transparency? Will it be siloed, matrixed, or flat? Will everyone be engaged? What will the compensation system reward—individual or team performance? These are only some of the questions.
  • Shaping: The CCO then ensures that the workforce is engaged in understanding and embracing the culture. If the workforce owns the culture, they’ll take care of it. The worst kind of culture is one that emerges from benign neglect. On-boarding employees, focus groups, two- way communications, and regular engagement—all of these tools help shape workforce ownership of the culture.
  • Developing: Cultures are not static. It is the CCO’s job to stay on top of the evolution and development of the culture so that it stays true to the original principles and values.

 Finally, this job that can’t be delegated. It is exclusively the CEO’s role. It’s a choice as well: ignore this role and just let things happen organically, and you get what you get; or, embrace the role, grow into it, and let the power of the culture work for the workforce and the business.

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Dr. Edward Marshall is an adjunct professor at the Fuqua School of Business at Duke University, and Managing Partner of The Marshall Group, LLC, where he works with companies to build leadership cultures based on trust and collaboration. You can contact him at:, 919.265.9616.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

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  • Norman Jentner

    CCO. Creation, Shaping, Development. Yes! And what about “hidden Dragons”?

    Ed, I really appreciate your opening assertions. As important as the bottom-up process is for a solid culture foundation throughout the enterprise, I think we do well to recognize that there is, indeed, a Chief Culture Officer, the CEO.

    I so appreciate your triadic focus on creation, shaping, and development. Again, astutely cogent, in my humble opinion. It begins with intention. It is a step-by-step process. And it is about resilient peak performance enhancement.

    Again, as you reference your three key elements that help define culture, I believe you “got it!” by including a focus on heart, in addition to head and hand.

    The direct relationship that you point out exists between the CEO’s beliefs, behaviors and attitudes and how the workforce behaves, applies I think most clearly in the early stages of company formation. I suspect you would agree that this correlation typically begins to diminish as size and time unfold, with unforeseen, unplanned and poorly understood consequences. You stated it well when you asserted the CCO can “ignore this role and just let things happen organically, and you get what you get; or, embrace the role, grow into it, and let the power of the culture work for the workforce and the business.”

    I so appreciate your implying that the CCO role requires far more than simply checking off a checklist of items to be addressed. Instead, it will require the full engagement of the CCO to pull this off well.

    Ed Dolan’s recent comment to Tom Morehead’s “All Generations” post that, “Something often overlooked in discussions of corporate culture is Ed Schein’s definitional observation that culture is observed, not [so much consciously] created,” relates to these unintended, unforeseen, and unrecognized consequences associated with failure to focus with full effectiveness on one’s culture over time.

    On this point of “unintended, unforeseen, and unrecognized consequences” associated with business operations, I am curious about your views concerning what I’d like to posit are potential “hidden Dragons” within any given workforce culture.

    By “hidden Dragon” I simply mean the motivational or value system of an individual that is not yet well matched to strategic company requirements for their position. The result is that these individuals are not yet strategically engaged with full understanding and alignment with the company mission, vision, and strategic goals. The effect is cultural drag.

    I am suggesting that the demands faced by the COO in regard to “potential hidden Dragons” may well change according to which of three phases of culture focus best characterizes the company in the present moment.

    Rather than repeat my “hidden Dragons” entry here, may I be so bold as to request you to view my comment, labeled, “What about potential ‘hidden Dragons’ within a given workforce culture?” that I wrote in response to Tim Kuppler’s “Culture of Discipline” blog entry?

    I would appreciate your feedback as to whether, in your experience, you think I am accurately describing something of practical significance pertaining to CCO responsibilities.


    • edwardmmarshall

      Norman, thank you for all of your thoughtful comments. A couple of responses.
      Regarding whether individuals are aligned with a company’s culture and direction, I believe that the responsibility for shaping the culture and ensuring alignment belongs to the company’s leadership, not the individual. Having been in an organization where it was my responsibility to “fit in” and where leadership did virtually nothing to engage the workforce in cultural alignment other than to tell us to shape up, I come by this view honestly. Sometimes people don’t fit. That is always the case. But the role of CEO as CCO is to have an ongoing alignment and engagement process that doesn’t just “tell” people what the culture is, but “listens” to the needs of the workforce and responds accordingly. The need for belonging, for appreciation, for contribution, for doing something that matters.

      On another point, about “hidden dragons”, there are always people who don’t necessarily fit within a given culture. When the culture shifts, say to a more collaborative way of working, those who are more comfortable in the hierarchy and uncomfortable with the vulnerability and accountability that comes with being in a team–they usually leave, or are asked to. There are other “dragons” when a change process is underway–there are “submarines”–those who disagree with the direction and actively work to undermine it; there are “active resisters” who openly challenge the change because they feel threatened; there are “passive resisters” who decide to just not cooperate or drag their heels, hide information, show up late to meetings, etc.

      I’m sure there are other classifications, but all of these types, I have learned, can be engaged if the culture change involves an ownership strategy that actively engages them.

      Your thoughts?


      • Norman Jentner

        I appreciate your multi-layered and convincing responses, Edward.

        You brought a smile with a cringe to my own face, by generating my own recollections of working in one arena in particular where my immediate superior’s actions were mis-aligned with and counter to broader leaderships’ clear interests.

        I understand you to be asserting that even if culture is, in theory, the practical responsibility of all participants, it is ultimately top leadership’s responsibility to, in fact, lead the ongoing alignment and engagement process. This is done as CCO, in part, by broadcasting and modeling the reasons, intended results, and strategies of the organization, and soliciting and constructively including the reasons, intended results, and personal approaches of all stakeholders.

        I appreciate your assertion that “there are always people who don’t necessarily fit within a given culture.” I like your additional different categories of “poor fit.”

        Even so, you assert that an effective alignment and engagement process, when starting with top leadership, not only in theory, but also in your experience, can generally accommodate all different kinds or forms of reactions to change, specifically by constructively engaging.

        Have I captured your points accurately, Edward?

        Presuming I am accurate so far, I would still like to posit the probability that there will tend to be predictably more or fewer “hidden dragons,” and “submarines,” and the like, generally dependent upon which of three basic stages (Start-up, Post-Founder Growth, or Evolving Peak Performance with Maturity) best represents that organization’s current cultural evolution over time.

        Do you think I am describing something that (A) Makes sense to you? (B) Is backed by your own reflections, or that of others? And (C) is of potentially practical import if considering more conscious culture engagement on one’s organization?



        • edwardmmarshall


          I have found that in a change process to a collaborative leadership culture, there are initially 3 types of reactions, regardless of the stage of the business: early adopters (15%); resisters (20-25%), and Missouri–Show Me(everyone else). The key is to leverage the energy and ownership of the 15% into those from the Show Me state; the resisters, over time, will have to make a choice whether they want to stay in a collaborative culture.

          Thanks for the dialogue,


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