CEOs should lead corporate culture

But it takes a rare breed to do it.

It’s become something of an obsession, particularly for business leaders under pressure. Perhaps one of the most unlikely advocates for the idea of corporate culture in recent times has been former Barclays chief executive Bob Diamond. Before being forced out of the bank he claimed to “love”, Diamond repeatedly spoke about the importance of building a culture of integrity and trust and he once defined true organisational culture as being “how people behave when no one is watching”.

Meanwhile on the G4S website, the security outsourcing giant states that it is proud of its “distinctive culture and strong values that are cascaded through the organisation”. It would be interesting to hear Nick Buckles, the G4S chief executive, explain what part that culture and those valued played in the current Olympic security farrago.

Both examples demonstrate how closely culture and leadership are connected. Both organisations fall into a category that might be called macho management.

Hierarchical, slightly old-fashioned and reliant on a supposedly “strong” leader to set the organizational tone, which can then cascade down through the ranks. In these situations, the values, ethics, behaviours and attitudes of the top people in an organisation set the tone and culture. Such leaders usually feel the need to add their seal of approval or stamp of authority on every major decision.

They also like to keep organisational power secure in the centre. They surround themselves with people who agree with them, people who defer to the position and authority of the leader rather than challenge their wisdom. This is a culture that has little or no place for dissent and little time for discussion. These leaders would agree with the old-fashioned concept that it is lonely at the top.

Rather than a strong, open culture, this approach breeds fear and resentment and encourages people outside of the hallowed centre to keep things under wraps if they think it might displease the leader. It encourages people to misreport activity in order to make sure those they are reporting to hear what they want to hear. When the leader shouts jump the rest of the management team ask “how high?” and then rush off to organise jumping practice and instigate new height measurement protocols.

Management and leadership writers have spent the past 30 years filling business school library bookshelves with reports, books and academic papers about the value of low-profile leadership, open and transparent management processes and creating cultures that empower people to make decisions at the lowest effective level in an organization. Those as close as possible to the front line should be the ones making the most important decisions quickly and effectively.

The trouble is that this rhetoric and research is hard to put into practice. The modern corporation was born in the image of the military and too many leaders appear hard-wired to continue this approach. Worse still, too many senior and middle management adopt the attitude of followers, rather than challengers.

While most people can probably name a company that does things differently, if you ask lots of people you get a depressingly short list of the same usual suspects. It’s refreshing, and yet also shamefully rare, to hear of a successful organisation that adopts an upside-down culture or whose leader seems to embrace the idea of an open culture and is big enough to actively invite dissent and discussion around the boardroom table.

That’s because it takes a rare breed of leader confident enough to do it. And a rare bunch of shareholders and investors to allow it happen. The financial crisis and recession have made things even harder. The upshot of this is that senior executives are not used to dealing with confrontation or dissent. Perhaps that’s why so few CEOs seem to know how to cope with the uprising among the shareholder and investor community.

The bad news for CEOs — and shareholders — is that culture change is difficult and painful to do at all, let along do well. The good news for all of us is that recognising there is a problem with culture is a good first step towards making things better.

This article originally appeared in economia.

Some CEOs. Photograph: Getty Images

Richard Cree is the Editor of Economia.

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For the first time in my life I have a sworn enemy – and I don’t even know her name

The cyclist, though, was enraged. “THAT’S CLEVER, ISN’T IT?” she yelled. “WALKING IN THE ROAD!”

Last month, I made an enemy. I do not say this lightly, and I certainly don’t say it with pride, as a more aggressive male might. Throughout my life I have avoided confrontation with a scrupulousness that an unkind observer would call out-and-out cowardice. A waiter could bring the wrong order, cold and crawling with maggots, and in response to “How is everything?” I’d still manage a grin and a “lovely, thanks”.

On the Underground, I’m so wary of being a bad citizen that I often give up my seat to people who aren’t pregnant, aren’t significantly older than me, and in some cases are far better equipped to stand than I am. If there’s one thing I am not, it’s any sort of provocateur. And yet now this: a feud.

And I don’t even know my enemy’s name.

She was on a bike when I accidentally entered her life. I was pushing a buggy and I wandered – rashly, in her view – into her path. There’s little doubt that I was to blame: walking on the road while in charge of a minor is not something encouraged by the Highway Code. In my defence, it was a quiet, suburban street; the cyclist was the only vehicle of any kind; and I was half a street’s length away from physically colliding with her. It was the misjudgment of a sleep-deprived parent rather than an act of malice.

The cyclist, though, was enraged. “THAT’S CLEVER, ISN’T IT?” she yelled. “WALKING IN THE ROAD!”

I was stung by what someone on The Apprentice might refer to as her negative feedback, and walked on with a redoubled sense of the parental inadequacy that is my default state even at the best of times.

A sad little incident, but a one-off, you would think. Only a week later, though, I was walking in a different part of town, this time without the toddler and engrossed in my phone. Again, I accept my culpability in crossing the road without paying due attention; again, I have to point out that it was only a “close shave” in the sense that meteorites are sometimes reported to have “narrowly missed crashing into the Earth” by 50,000 miles. It might have merited, at worst, a reproving ting of the bell. Instead came a familiar voice. “IT’S YOU AGAIN!” she yelled, wrathfully.

This time the shock brought a retort out of me, probably the harshest thing I have ever shouted at a stranger: “WHY ARE YOU SO UNPLEASANT?”

None of this is X-rated stuff, but it adds up to what I can only call a vendetta – something I never expected to pick up on the way to Waitrose. So I am writing this, as much as anything, in the spirit of rapprochement. I really believe that our third meeting, whenever it comes, can be a much happier affair. People can change. Who knows: maybe I’ll even be walking on the pavement

Mark Watson is a stand-up comedian and novelist. His most recent book, Crap at the Environment, follows his own efforts to halve his carbon footprint over one year.

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood