How to create stronger culture via CEO conversations

The importance of building positive corporate culture isn’t news — and hasn’t been since the often-quoted Peter Drucker announced what culture eats for lunch. What is still news, however, is how little corporations and their leaders are doing about it.  A PwC corporate survey noted that 84% of respondents identified culture as being “critically important” (particularly in times of change) but that fewer than half felt their organizations did a sufficient job of building culture.

CEO = Culture Builder in Chief

While there can be many factors behind the failure to create, align and nurture an effective corporate culture, few if any have as much impact as the CEO. From identifying a vision, expressing a mission and living out a motivating purpose, the CEO needs to be the culture trailblazer. That doesn’t mean leading from high above — in requires walking, talking and listening directly with and to the troops consistently, over time.

Leading by example — which is what I mean by “living out” your purpose — is generally considered the most important way for a CEO to shape company culture. And while, yes, it’s not so much what you say as what you do, even exemplary leaders also need to communicate.

Communication and Conversation Build Culture

It’s all too tempting for the corner office to confuse “communicate” with “pontificate,” settling for the one-way messaging of emails, speeches and company policy statements. In fact, another study highlighted “trickle down, hierarchical communications” as a key factor in what prevents leaders from being effective builders of positive culture — right alongside “arrogance,” “micromanagement,” and “slow adoption of technology,” “lack of vision” and other leadership sins.

While marketing, HR and corporate communications pros must work together to shape clear employee messages, training and engagement initiatives, forward-thinking leaders (and those who support them) also wisely observe the “co-“ in communicate, and look for ways to listen as well as speak. For instance, some, like PepsiCo CEO Indra Nooyi, use “CEO Town Halls,” which can have both local and organization-wide impact, via sharing on on live feeds or video.

Most, however, still rely on the traditional “I speak, you listen” form of corporate communication — so allow me to suggest another option: the CEO-employee interview series

Cast your CEO as interviewer, employees as the experts

Do you want to

  • Engage employees
  • Demonstrate, and not simply claim, that leadership is listening
  • Elevate and invest the broader team as internal culture creators and brand champions

Then create a video interview series, featuring your CEO as interviewer. This should be a regular part of your employee communication, and track (or even lead) the editorial calendar you’ve developed for internal use.

You can make it easy on your top brass (and yourself, if you’re in charge of corporate communications) if you:

  • Select, and pre-schedule a cross-functional roster of employees, at all levels, to be interviewed (based on your calendar of key topics)
  • Schedule a monthly 30-minute session with your CEO
    (if the CEO can spare an hour, schedule more than one interview)
  • Have a simple video set-up, in your offices, convenient to your CEO
  • Prep and pre-approve a series of key questions
  • If the CEO is camera shy, let her/him simply stick to the questions as a script
  • If the CEO is a budding Oprah, let her/him start with the questions, and then take the conversation wherever it wants to go (the more unscripted the exchange is, the better)
  • Make sure that your CEO is mostly asking brief questions, and actively listening
    to the answers
  • Promote the videos within your regular communications calendar
  • Repurpose the videos (e.g., as podcasts, posts, or as part of new employee on-boarding)

These videos need not be fancy; simple is just fine.  For culture-building purposes, it is more important that the conversation be useful, honest and authentic. The series does, however, need to be real series, consistently produced on an on-going schedule, as “one-and-done” corporate culture efforts can be downright counterproductive.

Most CEOs want to be external thought leaders; but when it comes to creating culture, internal thought leadership is the place to start. For more information on exactly how this could work for your organization, please contact our Chief Conversation Officer.


About the Author
Chuck Kent, the Chief Conversation Officer at Lead the Conversation, is a writer, brand strategist, content creator and expert interviewer. He is also a Contributing Editor for Branding Magazine, where he created and moderates the monthly Branding Roundtable (which keeps him in constant conversation with business leaders from around the world).

Lead the Conversation is an executive content creation service that makes it easier for busy top management to develop authentic, compelling thought leadership content, such as videos, bylined articles and blog posts. We also create opportunities for conversation leadership, such as interview series and other forums.
Lead the Conversation provides a practical way to develop authentic thought leadership content for busy executives. We also help the C-Suite create and lead industry conversations, to which they can invite other leaders, turning prospects into relationships.

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