CEO – organisational culture circuit-breaker? Series 2 of 2

In Series 1, we referred to his Holiness Pope Francis as not only the ‘CEO’ of the Catholic church but also the organisational-culture circuit breaker.

Organisational-culture circuit breaker ‘CEO’

What is a circuit breaker after all?

A circuit breaker is an automatically operated electrical switch designed to protect an electrical circuit from damage caused by over-current, typically resulting from an overload or short circuit.

Juxtaposed against organisational culture, the definition above assumes that corporate culture can undermine value creation and the very survival of an organisation. And like the circuit-breaker, some CEO’s have to assume the mandate of ‘protector’ to avoid or mitigate the damage that can be caused by an over-current of organisational culture

The quantum of organisational-culture:

What is enough or not of a culture-current? The answer is relative. It depends on the usually very unique circumstances in an institution. Certain institutions may require culture detoxing, other may need the opposite, and for some, there may even be no culture to talk about.

Building or maintaining the culture are the easy bits. Detoxing or killing culture is much tougher like we are witnessing in the Catholic church. Someone as high up as the current Pope, the supreme leader of the church, is facing obstacles in his attempts to change the Curia.

No wonder, the organisational-culture circuit breaker task is the most dreaded of the CEO’s brief and more often than not, entirely avoided

Taming the quantum of organisational culture:

So, what makes the organisational-culture circuit breaker CEO succeed?

First, it’s what the Board does prior, during, and to a lesser extent post CEO hiring. Second, the tact and grit of the circuit breaker CEO once in office

To the Board:

  • Appoint an outsider to the role. Pope Francis is the first non-European Pope to be appointed to the position.  Francis has done things his way. Yes, it’s possible that another non-European could have chosen to keep the conservative culture of the Church. However, it was more likely than not that the courage to change the culture, would come from an outsider.
  • Organisational culture circuit-breaker CEO’s have tenacity. The CEO elect may be an outsider, but still lack the grim persistence required in such situations. Culture is the way we do things around us. And it’s never acceptable for others, especially outsiders with no clue on how we leave, telling us to change the things that we believe, practice, and have made us who we are today.  Boards need to be aware that appointing an outsider without the grit-DNA as CEO, won’t get culture changed. Even with all his powers, Pope Francis is yet to succeed at reforming the Curia.  But, but……. he is still at it and has been bold to tell the Vatican team, on their face, that they have spiritual Alzheimer’s. Personal attacks on the Pope, are yet to detract him from his mission. We can confidently write that thus far, Pope Francis has shown grit. When assessing the CEO’s character, the Board should ask, ‘when faced with something unpleasant, will the individual stay the course?
  • Once the outsider is in, however savvy they are, they will need support from the Board. Left to it alone, culture will eat the new CEO’s strategy for breakfast. The support to the CEO is two-pronged – i) as needed, re-calibrating the change effort of the CEO, helping them get back on track, where massive organisational-culture change velocities are starting to create too much noise in the system for the CEO to maintain their bearing ii) engaging the opposing constituency, directly and indirectly, and  sending the right message to them. It has to be lock – stock – and barrel by all stakeholders at the top.

To the CEO a la organisational culture circuit breaker:

  • Of course, you will need grit – and only you know the amount of grit that you bring to the job. Don’t assume that because you have done it somewhere, you can also succeed in this organisation. Matters to do with organisational culture are influenced by many factors – and such factors affect the amount of grit you need. Factors like how long the culture has been in place and how deep-rooted it is, the political affiliation of the staff at the organisation – specifically, the numbers that are for and anti-culture; the more you have in the former category, the more difficult the task at hand and as a consequence, the more grit you need to change the status quo
  • Hire new and supporting faces on your organisational-culture change bandwagon.
  • Playing stupid at times. Playing stupid buys you much needed time to re-energise, re-strategise before having a go at it again. Organisational-culture politics always has those that are for and against. The anti-change constituency, like Pope Francis has discovered, will have mastered so very well, the all for one, one for all mentality! When those against are winning, it’s at times wise to retreat. Tactical retreat is not accepting failure; it’s also not your escape from taking on organisational culture change resistors. Pope Francis has apparently had his battle moments but also tactical retreats.
  • Boss, you aren’t going to change the culture overnight, It’s a process. Consider breaking culture change into three phases: i) grounding ii) engaging iii) and consolidating. As an organisational culture circuit breaker, a CEO may not be around long enough to see through all three stages of breaking the culture circuit. Once inside the organisation choose the organisational culture change stages you want to implement. It may be the grounding, it may be grounding and engaging, or even all three. However, be very clear what you want to do and not. This is the kind of decision you take once you have tested the battlefield. Be mindful of the old military adage: ‘no battle plan ever survives contact with the enemy’ – the very reason why it’s at times necessary to retreat but not surrender
  • It can feel lonely doing this job. Things get so heated that even those closest to you will at times keep their distance. Why blame them? Playing safe is human. These people don’t have the DNA of the organisational culture circuit breaker like you. Many may have come aboard, utterly unaware of what was ahead and as things unravel, they discover that they can’t deal with the heat. Just keep at it even when alone. They will re-join later, or you will get a new lot
  • Finally – always understand why the opposing side prefers to maintain the status-quo. Don’t look at those in opposition to what you think is right as professional enemies. Understand that there is a reason, and a good one in their eyes, to behave the way they do. Listen to them, accommodate where necessary, and provide them with transition arrangements and soft landing, internally and externally. Organisational-culture change is a people-management game. You are dealing with complex individual psychology and vulnerability – it just can’t be disregarded

Pope Francis is still at it, and we wish him all the best

For you, we hope that the above tips and the blog series will help make you a capable organisational-culture circuit breaker

Categories: You, the Leader!

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2 replies

  1. Thank you Apollo. a question for you is: Doesn’t Organizational culture also change or modernize hence change over time? If not doesn’t this create pressure and eventual explosion? In such a case what should be done to keep the brand?


    • Well – culture can change indeed but the chances of it not changing, and change being forced on to culture, are great. Actually this is normally the case. Reason guru’s like Dracker will tell you that ‘culture eats strategy for breakfast!’

      Org. culture supporters assume that culture is cast in stone

      This is the very reason we need organisational-culture circuit breakers like Pope Francis and hopefully, you Arthur

      Thanks for reading the blog


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