Culture Officers Protect, Maintain Essence of Company

By Kathy Gurchiek Dec 6, 2013
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At ConnectOne Bank in New Jersey, Maria Gendelman works in an environment where, she says, the CEO routinely reserves an empty chair at meetings to remind employees of the customer they serve. In January 2012, Gendelman was the bank’s chief retail and business officer when the CEO asked her to take on the full-time role of chief culture officer.

“Culture was so important for this organization, and he wanted to hire somebody to maintain it and make sure all the bells and whistles are there and [that] everyone throughout the organization understands it,” Gendelman said.

“They didn’t really have a title for me at the time,” she recalled, but “they knew what they wanted me to do—assure we had consistency” throughout the organization and preserve the company’s culture among its 100 employees working at eight locations.

Other organizations have people in similar positions. In 2006, Google added culture coordinator duties to the person heading up its human resources department. Part of the role, according to a 2012 CNN Money news report, was “to protect key parts of Google’s scrappy, open-source cultural core as the company has evolved into a massive multinational” organization.

Dyn, a New Hampshire-based provider of Internet performance solutions, employs a director of community, culture and customers.

And in November 2013, Santa Monica, Calif.-based TigerText Inc., which provides secure text messaging for clients, was looking for an HR & culture coordinator to help shape the corporate culture and environment by spearheading firm-wide events, onboarding new hires and showcasing its culture to the public.

Culture coordinators are not yet widespread. CareerBuilder’s vice president of HR, Rosemary Haefner, said the job is “fairly rare,” and the job-search giant has not seen a significant uptick in postings of this kind.

That could change. In an August 2013 blog for The New Talent Times, Erin Osterhaus, managing editor at Software Advice, named culture coordination as one of five jobs of the HR department of the future—along with resource procurement, wellness coordination, “big data” analysis and internal mobility coordination.

A business that appoints someone to focus on culture is “making a profound commitment [to] the culture of the company and [its] health,” said culture consultant Mallory Maske. “They need to put somebody as a driver or it falls by the wayside.”

“If a company is really focused on building culture as part of [what] they are, they really need someone who thinks about it every single day,” observed Maske, who was director of people and culture at the Los Angeles-based Rubicon Project,a digital advertising company with a staff of more than 300. “What oftentimes happens in a standard HR structure is [that] the HR group wants to do all the cultural things, but the day-to-day [demands] get in the way a lot.”

During her more than five years at Rubicon, “I put together a road map—certain initiatives to drive our culture of values”—and collected metrics via quarterly employee-happiness surveys--to track worker engagement and participation in initiatives. “What culture truly is, is not happy hour, not free pizza—those are all elements of a strategy of a culture.”

Dr. David Vik, founder and CEO of The Culture Secret consultancy, used to be the coach at Zappos.com, where he helped drive its highly successful culture of delivering the wow factor to customers and employees.

But it was at the longtime chiropractic clinic he founded, before joining the online shoe company, where he first discovered the importance of company culture.

“A culture founded on showing people that they matter—whether they’re employees, customers or other stakeholders—makes for a business that is unstoppable,” wrote Vik, known as “the culture king,” in his book The Culture Secret (Greenleaf Book Group Press, 2013).

Preserving the Culture at a Growing Company

Kamron Hack had been the office manager at ClearSlide, a San Francisco company providing cloud-based sales-engagement platforms, for about a year when the co-founders approached her, in 2012, about taking on the role of culture coordinator.

The business was rapidly expanding: There were 19 employees when Hack joined ClearSlide; today there are 200, and it has moved twice to larger spaces.

The co-founders “liked the company as it was when it was small, and they wanted to be able to continue to have that kind of feel. ... They wanted the culture to continue to grow in a thoughtful way … and they needed someone to be focused on that if that was going to happen,” Hack said.

The position didn’t even have a title, initially. It was more important, she said, to figure out and shape the job. She met with the co-founders and talked about growth and training opportunities, a speakers series, “big events to celebrate big wins,” and more fitness activities. The CEO also gave her a list of ideas for recognition programs.

From there, her role crystallized into developing and implementing fun, meaningful activities that enhance employees’ experience—team-building and intramural events—as well as planning parties.

When the recognition program did not immediately come together, they realized they needed to establish core business values to tie the various initiatives to, Hack recalled. One value, “We operate on open feedback,” resulted in the CEO instituting weekly office hours with employees, making himself available to individuals in 15-minute increments over two hours. Other executives followed suit.

Hack, who is part of the HR team, also researches innovative companies like Zappos, listens closely to employee input and regularly meets with the leaders of ClearSlide’s three planning councils—Philanthropy, Sports and Social—to collaborate on programming. In addition, a consultant met with a large cross section of employees to help the company define its business goals and identify gaps preventing it from achieving them.

Consultant Maske recommends the following steps for establishing a culture coordinator role:

  • Define the company’s cultural values; three to five is the ideal number.
  • Make the values visual—on your website, the home page of your intranet, on the walls of all the office buildings. Reference them often and regularly, incorporating them into communications.
  • Outline a strategy of events or changes that will be made within the company to specifically support each value.
  • Expand beyond the HR department. Form a committee of diverse representatives who can foster ideas and help execute strategy.
  • Hire and fire according to the company’s values. Define the attitude you are looking for based on the cultural values, and interview candidates accordingly. Be prepared to dismiss employees who undermine the culture or sabotage positive changes.
  • Reward those who embrace and embody the values. Develop a peer-to-peer rewards program and consider a monthly, quarterly or yearly awards program to highlight individuals who make a positive impact on the culture.
  • Ask for candid feedback to help identify weaknesses in initiatives and work with key stakeholders to develop an improvement plan.

And hire from within, Maske advised.

“If you are considering someone who is solely responsible for facilitating your company culture … [think of] hiring from within,” she said in a news release. “On every team, there are superstars who are both highly respected in the organization, well-liked and contribute positively to the work environment. These are the people you should consider. You don’t need an HR degree to run culture initiatives, but you do need the respect of the team.”

Ultimately, though, the success of a company’s culture coordination lies with the CEO and executive team support.

“If they’re not buying into it and not driving it,” ConnectOne’s Gendelman pointed out, “it can’t be sustained.”

Kathy Gurchiek is the associate editor for HR News.

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