The importance of culture in transitioning executives

Pair of champagne flutes making a toast. Champagne splash
April 10, 2015

The importance of culture in transitioning executives

I recently spoke to a journalist about the challenges facing new CEOs. We spoke about the usual things but I mentioned that I thought that companies, for the most part, do not onboard executives as well as they could. I was thinking about how executives are often derailed because they do not clearly understand company cultures as well as they could to succeed. Executives usually have a better handle on what is expected of them in terms of business impact and goals but far less on the watch-outs regarding cultural dynamics and nuances. A new McKinsey article on Ascending to the C-Suite appears to confirm this. In their survey of C-level respondents, they found that only 27% of executives believe that the companies they were hired into or promoted within had the right resources or programs in place to support their transitions. As McKinsey says, “Part of the challenges posed by culture is that many executives believe they don’t have accurate ways to measure or even describe it.” And this is even more true for external hires — 42% of outsider hires in the survey said it would have been very valuable to have more information on the culture during their transitions. The figure declines to 29% among insider hires but even so….nearly one in three insider hires want more information on the culture of the organization.

It would be helpful for companies to hire a cultural anthropologist to discern a company’s culture and report back to new hires on what to expect in their new roles, how people succeed or fail, what the basic beliefs are that guide employees in their everyday roles. These culture-doctors could impart meaning to a company’s rituals, myths and practices that are often invisible to newcomers.

I recall that when I joined Fortune, there was an inordinate emphasis on giving good toasts. The toasts could be for someone’s promotion, a new business win or someone’s departure. People would work extremely hard at what they said and how humorous, witty and heartfelt it was.  It was an art in itself and once you did it well, you were accepted into some inner circle that had no name and you knew afterwards if you had earned your stripes or not. Reputations were built on how well you toasted your colleagues. I learned that you had to write it down, rehearse it and deliver it fast. Luckily I succeeded in this culture-sport and learned never to take stand-up performances for granted. In fact, I transferred that part of Fortune’s culture to family events where my husband and I spend time on our toasts for different occasions and expect our kids to do the same when we get together.

This is probably not the best example for executives transitioning to C-level jobs but it does show that office culture extends across all activities and particularly to how companies celebrate. Getting an early read on company rituals and patterns would do all executives well.



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Leslie Gaines-Ross
Leslie Gaines-Ross

As Weber Shandwick’s Chief Reputation Strategist, I focus on the ever changing world of reputation. For the past 25 years, I have relentlessly observed, researched and commented on the rise and fall of reputations.

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