Shaping a Culture that Drives Agility and Innovation

CEOs ponder the intangible asset that can make or break a company’s future.

March 25 2013 by Jennifer Pellet


“To prosper, companies need to do four things well,” former P&G CEO A.G. Lafley once observed. “Develop leaders of the future, improve productivity, execute strategy and create innovation.” Straightforward enough advice—but what single force binds these four together like no other?

The answer is culture, agreed CEOs gathered for a roundtable discussion held in partnership with Senn Delaney, a consultancy recently acquired by Heidrick and Struggles. Difficult to measure and tricky to shape, culture is an intangible asset that can make or break an organization’s future. A strong culture can give a company the agility to move quickly and more efficiently around strategic initiatives and to be more responsive to both its customers and market shifts, as well as to attract and retain top talent. In fact, a recent study on core beliefs and culture by Deloitte reported that 84 percent of employees and 83 percent of executives believe that having engaged and motivated employees is a top factor contributing to company success.

Yet, developing an effective organizational culture is a formidable task—and attempting to transform an existing one or meld two cultures after a merger can be even more challenging. So what can leaders do to foster the kind of culture that aligns with their goals and enables them to drive agility and innovation?

First and foremost is the need to understand and embrace the fundamental fact that shaping company culture is ultimately a CEO challenge. “It’s a leadership issue,” noted Carla Cooper, CEO of Daymon Worldwide. “I’ve worked with a cultural anthropologist and he always says, ‘Passengers don’t crash airplanes. Pilots crash airplanes.’ Every time I engage him with a different organization—this is my fifth—I’ll say, ‘This time, it’s not me.’ An hour later, it’s always me.”

“You can’t delegate this stuff,” agreed Jim Hart, CEO of Senn Delaney. “You’ve got to lead it. You don’t have to carry the ball solely yourself, but the leadership has to be committed to it because it will get resistance.”