Should your organization have a CCO and CLO? Paul Hebert argues against organizations appointing a Chief Culture Officer.

Hebert writes:

…as soon as you codify, quantify and assign responsibility to something it ceases to be everyone’s responsibility…Culture is a defined as a set of shared values, behaviors, norms.  Shared.  Operative word.  Shared means we all have a part in the outcome and the input…If you create a job called “Culture Chief” you’ve just provided a backdoor for every manager, every employee to use as their personal escape route when culture starts to go wrong at your company.

I agree with Hebert and I have similar concerns with having a CLO (Chief Learning Officer). Learning is what employees in high performance organizations must do continuously as part of their MC900059166 jobs. Companies don’t have CWOs (Chief Work Officer), so why do they have CLOs? I suspect CEOs appoint CCOs and CLOs because it makes them feel like they are doing something about the work environment and employee development. The risk is that responsibility for employee engagement and learning will be relegated to a department and not owned by every executive, manager, and employee in the organization.

For a long time, organizations have built a department around training and given it a director in order to give it status and to protect it from the budgetary absorption of other units. The unintended consequence has been to reinforce the notion that work and learning are separate and that one has higher value than the other when, in fact, the success of the organization depends on continuous learning. To break out of this mental model, companies should stop doing things that appear to centralize responsibility for learning. Don’t put all the emphasis on a course catalogue and don’t hire a CLO.

I see the need for a CFO and a CIO. They are leaders of operational areas that require specialized focus on managing, maintaining, and improving systems that support those operations. Those areas need a voice at the executive table. But culture and learning are who we are and how we work collectively. They should be nurtured and actively fostered daily by everyone. 

On the other hand, any kind of major change in an organization needs a champion. Employees want a face on actions that affect the way they do their work and how they are rewarded. They are more likely to commit to doing things differently and going in a different strategic direction if they believe that the leadership of the organization fully endorses the new direction.   A credible, respected leader that frequently reminds people of the change can play a key role in ensuring that the change happens and that it sticks. Also, it’s good to see the visibility for culture and learning that comes with appointment of a person in those positions. However, if sole responsibility for the change rests with that leader, it will not be sustained over time. Eyes will roll every time that person opens his or her mouth. A high performance culture and continuous employee learning will not become woven into the fabric of the organization.

Change in culture, such as transforming an organization from high fear to high trust, has to be done collectively and requires that everyone in the organization accept responsibility for doing things differently and recognizing and rewarding people differently. Change in learning, such as managers forming an alliance with their direct reports around learning and performance improvement, also requires shared responsibility and mutual support for doing things quite differently. Learning is everybody’s business whether at the individual, team, or organization level.

Leadership for culture and learning should come from CEOs. It’s their job to set the strategic direction for the organization and ensure that the organization is aligned with that direction. Culture and learning are the foundation for that alignment. I understand the desire of CEOs to departmentalize those roles, but the downside risk is significant.