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Organizational Culture: Is HR responsible?

I was about two weeks into an executive role at a large organization, when the President called a meeting to present the results of a recent culture survey. As the consultant went through the results, my heart sank: It was very clear that the organization had some really deep-rooted problems.

As I sat there wondering how the heck I'd missed it in my seven interviews with many different people, I quickly leapt to thinking what I could do to help turn things around. Before I could offer any suggestions the President stood up, handed his printed copy of the results to the Vice-president of HR and said, "There you go [name of VP]: It seems you're going to be busy fixing this while the rest of us are making money." And then he walked out of the room leaving the HR VP stunned and speechless.

Fast-forward a year; nothing changed.

This story illustrates beautifully how not to manage organizational culture. Delegating responsibility to one department, and in some cases one person in one department, hobbles change. Why? Because no one person or department can manage, change and lead culture. Hand off a mandate to change, evolve, or transform culture to HR, and you're setting them up for failure.

Am I saying that HR shouldn't be involved in culture transformation? No, I'm not. Am I saying that they shouldn't lead the initiative? No. What I am saying is that it is wholly unrealistic and unreasonable to dump culture transformation or evolution at HR's door and expect them to succeed. The responsibility for culture transformation falls on every leader inside the organization; starting with senior leadership.

There are many well-intentioned leaders out there who see culture as some onerous thing that HR take care of. They may hold the belief that culture can't be measured, that it's a 'nice to do' project, and it may be viewed as something that has to be attended to, but not by anyone who is driving business. Not only do these beliefs fail to recognize the significance of culture, they also massively undermine any culture transformation effort.

The most effective tool you have to build long-term, consistent success in your organization is your culture. It directly affects talent retention and attraction, employee, customer, and stakeholder trust and loyalty, market share, investor confidence and trust, and top and bottom line results. It affects the reputation of organizations and those who lead them. To believe culture is anything less than a highly effective business tool is folly. And to expect one single department to be able to transform, evolve, or develop culture is unreasonable.

Yes culture is abstract, yes it's hard to define, yes it takes time and effort to steer it in the right direction. But my advice to you - wherever in the organization you are placed - is to get behind, advocate for, and support any culture initiatives in your organization. The returns far outweigh the effort.

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