What type of CEO are you when it comes to company culture?

There are 5 types of CEO when it comes to company culture, but only one you should aspire to be.
June 26, 2023

What type of CEO are you when it comes to company culture?

It’s always been the case that CEO’s take wildly different approaches to company culture. 

However, in writing my newest book, Own Your Culture, it became readily apparent to me that people’s divergent views on company culture are not so unique as they may think. 

In fact, you can split a CEO's attitudes towards company culture into five archetypes, within which pretty much every leader fits, and from which you can fairly reliably predict the quality, scalability and durability of that CEO’s company culture. 

With coronavirus causing a crisis of culture for many companies, I thought it would be helpful to share these, so that if you are a CEO, you can understand what archetype you sit under, and what that means in the long term for your company. 

Archetype One: The Company Culture Agnostic CEO 

This CEO either doesn’t think company culture is essential so doesn’t spend time on it, or mistakenly thinks that culture is and always will be an intangible ‘vibe’, not the result of a deliberate business process.

Unsurprising, I usually speak to this type of CEO when their company is having a full on culture meltdown.

In the early days of a company (under 10 person headcount), this CEO often gets away without doing any work on their culture, and this often leads them to nurture a misconception that they are actually naturally good at culture and don’t need to do the other stuff. 

Though not unique to the highly charismatic amongst us, this mindset often does afflict the more naturally gregarious leaders amongst us - chiefly because they usually are so damn likeable that in the early stages, when they have a personal relationship with each team member, they can genuinely get away with not putting any formal culture in place, and indeed can inculcate some seriously loyal early employees. 

I call this ‘charisma curse theory’ - like resource curse theory, the amount of charisma a leader has is often inversely proportional to the quality of their company culture as they scale, because their abundant natural charisma blinds them to the importance of putting in the graft to build a proper culture. A particularly charismatic founder might keep their culture going and team motivated through sheer charm at 10 people, or even 30 people - but eventually their personality hits it’s maximum point of scalability. 

And once it hits this wall, this archetype usually becomes a tale of woe, as they wonder why no one on their team cares like they used to, why new recruits are unhappy and/or not pulling their weight, and why decision paralysis seems to be taking hold throughout the company.

Chances of building a scalable company culture: 2/10

Archetype Two: The Tick Box CEO

This type of CEO is surprisingly common, and often manages to sail under the radar to everybody but actual employees of the company. 

This CEO is in the camp of thinking it’s as important to be seen to do company culture than it is to actually do it. 

Typically they do this by doing an away day with a culture development agency or branding agency, putting together a ‘mission, vision and values’ deck, and then putting it on their team drive where it gathers virtual dust. 

Unfortunately, much like photoshopping yourself onto the top of Mount Everest, this is not a strategy that works, and more often than not, is a more costly way of achieving the same results of the Culture Agnostic CEO. 

The one benefit the Tick Box CEO has is that they’ve usually done some or all of the groundwork you need in order to build a successful company culture - they just need to find the willpower to continue the work they’ve begun. 

Chances of building a scalable company culture: 4/10

Archetype Three: The Toe in The Water CEO

The advantage the toe in the water CEO has over the first two archetypes is they actually get that company culture is important. 

This type of CEO understands that company culture can be a sustainable competitive advantage if executed correctly, but quits the fight early when they suffer their first set back.  

With great enthusiasm and optimism, they and their senior leadership team will start to pull all the right moves; defining their mission and vision statements, their values, their expected behaviours. 

And the wider team…… not like it when they see it. This is really common when a company tries to formalise their culture - scepticism from the wider team. 

And at this point the Toe in the Water CEO ducks out of the company culture effort, failing to take the crucial steps of embedding their values and culture into the systems and processes which control how a company hires, fires, rewards and promotes their team - the building blocks of a scalable culture. 

Quitting at the first hurdle is surprisingly common in company culture building - and that is what this archetype does. 

Chances of building a scalable company culture: 6/10 (often this archetype finds their will power again)

Archetype Four: The Transitioning To Remote or Hybrid CEO

A welcome new face on the scene is the CEO who has just had ‘the lightbulb moment’ about company culture - due to transitioning their company to remote as a result of the covid-19 pandemic. 

As I’ve written about previously, there are at least 9 solid practises that companies have to adopt in order to work remotely, one of which is to deliberately develop a culture. 

Many, many companies have realised that they outsourced their culture to coworking spaces and the local pub, and are now running to catch up as remote work erodes their previously undefined and unwritten office-based culture. 

This CEO has ‘seen the light’ and has probably put company culture as one of their quarterly goals - and is trying to work out if ‘culture’ involves more than just Zoom Pizza Parties (it does). 

Chances of building a scalable company culture: 7.5/10 

Archetype Five: The Company Culture Aware CEO

This is the CEO you should aspire to be (or have). 

Not only are they aware that company culture is a crucial part of building a scalable organisation, but unlike the Toe in the Water CEO, they persevere, investing time in understanding, defining, embedding, reinforcing and managing their culture on an ongoing basis. 

This type of CEO usually comes to me with issues around optimisation or internationalisation, but they rarely have large scale culture issues, and usually have highly productive teams. 

Chances of building a scalable company culture: 9/10 (often this archetype finds their will power again)

Let us help you develop a hybrid work culture that unlocks the full potential of your flexible work environment. Get in touch today to learn how we can help your organization thrive in the new world of hybrid work.