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Book review: Chief Culture Officer

The most important point of the excellent book “Chief Culture Officer” by Grant McCracken is this — and it’s big:   Today’s fast-changing external cultural environment presents significant opportunities and dangers for companies.  To manage risk and seize opportunities somebody needs to own culture — understanding patterns and uncovering insights,  and helping the C-suite understand how make better decisions based on this understanding.

This isn’t traditional market research, but anthropological research for business, noticing and assessing ideas, trends, emotions that make up the life of customers and employees — and determining what these cultural shifts mean to a company. This applies not just to marketing, but to leadership, HR and workplace communications.

This understanding and empathy, Grant notes, is often viewed as a “soft competency” by executives and business schools.

“To refuse empathy is a kind of managerial malpractice. It costs us essential knowledge of our colleagues and our customers…In fact empathy is frequently the blade that finds the right insight, extracts from it the real strategic and tactical opportunity, and crafts it into a final, compelling form. Is this really a ‘soft’ skill?

Value of a Chief Culture Officer

  • Better informed C-suite decisions based on opportunities and risk that come from culture, both strategic and tactical decisions.
  • Serve as internal entrepreneur, an innovation agent

What a CCO does

  • Finds patterns among chaos of cultural trends and conjure what they mean to a company
  • Insinuates cultural knowledge into the CEO

How the chief culture officer does her or his job

  • Talks to anyone who will talk with you.
  • Figures out the thing that makes a person interesting.  Find what they know best and what this means to them, how it looks to them, how it feels to them
  • Is open and guileless, never, ever “hipper than thous”
  • Treats everyone as more knowledgeable than him or herself
  • Is a fearless “noticer” or observer — “spotting things that defy expectation, that don’t compute.” Pays special attention to things that puzzle. Pays attention to any failure in attention.
  • Develops empathy, the ability to feel how another person feels, and find insights from those feelings.
  • Admits ignorance and asks naive questions.

Beware: what culture strategy is not cool hunting

Today’s Fast culture is a huge challenge for businesses: miss a trend or misread customers and your brand can quickly become irrelevant. Similarly, slow culture also  presents opportunities and risks and is perhaps more overlooked as the “cool hunters” have no interest here at all.  Grant warns us to beware of the “cool” people; they tend to be into themselves and what’s hip, not real listening, observing and empathy needed to uncover insights.

Quotes I liked

  • “We should think of our CEO as a Soviet-era Moscow audience and the CCO as Radio Free Europe. The CCO is trying to penetrate an air space constantly being “jammed” by other things.”
  • “Knowledge can stand in the way of innovation.”
  • “Without emotional sonar, there are many things an executive cannot know. This person in a sense is trapped in himself.”
  • “There is no code to “crack” culture. Just good listening.”
  • “We are not seeking perfection. We are seeking to construct and idea just robust enough to get us from confusion to clarity.”

This is a motivating, highly-readable book, chock full of insights, things that make you wonder, and motivation to make you  want to wander more in order to notice more. It’s also so refreshing in its pragmatic approach, reminding us that culture strategy is a form of anthropological science and not about what the cool people think.

Five stars for this book.