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When then First Lady, Hillary Rodham Clinton, published her book “It Takes A Village,” an analysis of the impact individuals and groups outside the family have, for better or worse, on a child’s well-being, the right-wing pundits chastised Ms. Clinton for denigrating the primacy of the role of the family.  They sensed that there was some hidden corrupting message about the benefits of collective government social engineering to raise well-balanced children.

Of course, the book was not about that at all, but it made for good political fodder at the time.  Actually, I think she was on to something that can be applied in the world of business, specifically when building a strong organizational culture.

Based on my 36 years of working with dozens of healthcare executives and hundreds of hospitals across America, the Philippines and the United Emirates Republic, here is my take: One person—one CEO—cannot change a culture.

Values cannot be changed by slogans—posters hung on a wall, printed on a button or a golf shirt, or by powerfully written principles of service.  Oh, you certainly need the latter, but that document, or all the promotional items people spend a lot of money on, will not change anything.

Culture is the sum of an organization’s daily habits, buried deep in the automatic responses of the employees to situations—from the benign to the significant.  There are hundreds, thousands of these decisions each day.  They are completely out of the control of the CEO or the senior leadership team, even if they want to argue to the contrary.  These habits are impervious to the superficial campaigns that many organizations waste money on.

No amount of berating, yelling, or evangelical campaigns from consultants, will change this reality.  Rather, it takes a leader who can generate passion, daily personal reinforcement and the support of the village—the employees—to be more aware of these moments of truth.

In other words, as a CEO you cannot delegate this responsibility to some director of customer experience or pricey consultant.  If you want a better culture, you have to make the village aware of the challenge and ask for their support, day in and day out, preferably in person.  Memos from the corner office never work that well.

It is only when employees feel this, and profoundly believe it, will they shift from the automatic to being focused and aware of those moments.  But there are some mighty barriers between desire performance and deeply ingrained habit. 

If you are a CEO who thinks only someone from outside the organization can crack the code, save your money.  Tough times are coming. 

© 2012 John Gregory Self