chief culture officer

The rise of the chief culture officer

July 30, 2012: 11:28 AM ET

More companies are looking to have someone around to keep an eye on their culture, but doing it well takes more than just adding an additional office in the C-Suite.

FORTUNE -- Read any management how-to, and it will talk about the sanctity of a company's culture. Culture, you could argue, drives everything a business does -- it's successes and its slip-ups. Cracks in an otherwise sound culture can lead to big, expensive mistakes, much of which we have recently seen in the financial industry.

But a company's culture changes constantly, which makes it a challenge for companies trying to define it and make sure it's progressing the way they want. More and more, companies are trying to figure out how to do this, says Ken Oehler, a senior vice president at consulting firm Aon Hewitt. "There's been a resurgence from our clients, certainly an elevation of importance of culture to the CEO level during the recession and post recession." Many companies, Oehler says, are seeing that "macroeconomic pressures have created a dysfunctional culture, one that is not supporting business performance moving forward," and now, they are trying to figure out how keep their culture from spinning out of control.

One way to do this is to bring someone into the C-Suite whose job it is to keep an eye on culture. The best-known example of this approach is Google (GOOG), which added "chief culture officer" to head of HR Stacy Sullivan's job title in 2006. Part of her job is to protect key parts of Google's scrappy, open-source cultural core as the company has evolved into a massive multinational.

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But Google is the poster child for innovation and foosball at work, it makes sense that they would have a culture-keeper. Yet other, more traditional companies, even in the financial industry, have hired culture chiefs as well. One example is North Jersey Community Bank (NJCB), which recently appointed Maria Gendelman as its chief culture officer. CEO Frank Sorrentino encountered resistance from his board when he argued for the position, he says, because the job description is a little tough to define. Though now, having a chief culture officer is a differentiator for the bank, and there's no reason it shouldn't be status quo, Gendelman says. "Could every bank utilize a protector of the culture as part of the team?" she asks. "Absolutely." More

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