Are leaders accountable for the culture?

A commonly used framework for assigning project roles – the RACI matrix – allows for only one person to be accountable for each task or deliverable. This might suggest that only one person should be accountable for the culture i.e. the 'buck stops' with him or her. Other people would have responsibilities in relation to it but not accountability for it. Generally it is the CEO who defines cultural expectations and values, and gives specific responsibilities to others to support them.

Speaking some nine months after he was appointed CEO of Unilever, a consumer goods company in 2009, Paul Polman described the 'performance culture' he and his leadership team were aiming for.

Summarised he noted that: Execution is very, very important to us. We drive disciplines of good execution and we celebrate it when we see it. Accountability for execution is an integral part of driving the performance culture. And we're putting in place other elements right now that will help us drive execution higher up the organisation's agenda.

It was Polman who determined that Unilever required 'a performance culture' and he looked to his leadership team and other stewards (in many organizations it is HR people or line managers who have elements in their job descriptions related to culture development) to support him in getting to this. In RACI terminology, it is the leader/CEO who is accountable for the culture and everyone else is responsible, to a greater or lesser degree, for it.

In creating the culture leaders must be able to set expectations about it, demonstrate personally their support of it (in management jargon 'walk the talk'), and take action to address cultural failings and to acknowledge cultural success. This means specifically paying attention to two things:

a) the language of the organization: language allows for swift transmission and sharing of information, ideas, and learning

b) the way work is divided/shared: changing the way work is done changes the trade-off decisions that people can, or do, make in relation to it and this changes the level of cultural ownership people take (for better or worse depending on the job change).

In this example a culture that allowed bribe taking was signalled to change by introducing a change in the way work was done:

NEPAL'S anti-corruption authority has come up with a novel solution to rampant bribe-taking at the country's only international airport – the pocketless trouser.
The authority said it was issuing the new, bribe-proof garment to all airport officials after uncovering widespread corruption at Kathmandu's Tribhuvan International Airport.

"We sent a team to observe the growing complaints about the behaviour of airport authorities and workers towards travellers and we discovered that the reports were true," said Ishwori Prasad Paudyal, spokesman for the Commission for the Investigation of Abuse of Authority (CIAA).

"So we decided that airport officials should be given trousers with no pockets. We have directed the ministry of civil aviation to implement our order as soon as possible," he told AFP.

On its own this change could not work to change a culture of bribe taking. As one person noted

For a measure to produce a genuine and lasting change in public servants so that they condemn bribery and become active contributors to a culture of probity and accountability, that measure must engender a deeper transformation within. Anti-corruption commission officials and senior practitioners have told us about the need for a number of important criteria for building a culture of probity, including leadership commitment to ethical standards, the existence of enforceable code of ethics, and the development of a strong whistleblower protection system.

However committed the CEO/leader is to a specific culture (or change to it) they cannot act alone to create this. He/she must engender consensus within the leadership team about what the culture is or should be and what this means in terms of day to day activities. Common reasons for a lack of consensus include the following:

• A reluctance or refusal by organisational members to go along with the leader's view of the culture

• A lack of awareness on the part of the leader of how the culture is experienced at different levels and in different parts of the organisation, leading to misjudgements about what is achievable in setting cultural expectations

• A lack of understanding on the part of the leader that the stated cultural expectations are interpreted differently in different parts of the organisation

• Cultural accountability given to people who have different views and opinions on what they are accountable for

Leaders cannot abdicate their cultural accountability – learning what this means and working it towards organizational success is more of a challenge.