CEOs are Not Above the Culture

Last month, McDonald’s shockingly fired its celebrated CEO Steve Easterbrook for a “consensual relationship” with an employee, sending shockwaves around the business world. Colin D. Ellis delves into the issue and discusses the importance of understanding that rules are the same for everyone – even for the CEO.

I have some sympathy for Steve Easterbrook, the recently sacked Chief Executive Officer of McDonald’s. Under his stewardship McDonald’s instigated a new strategy that included plant-based burgers, remodelling stores and leveraging new technology to speed up the customer experience. The financial markets liked what he did too, with the share price almost doubling under his tenure.

However, the company policy manual clearly states that employees aren’t allowed to have ‘consensual relationships’ with other employees. You may think this is unfair or possibly even irrational, however, McDonald’s makes it clear that’s what it is, and it applies to everyone. Regardless of whether you’re flipping patties in a restaurant in Australia or walking the halls of the corporate offices in the USA.

A similar fate befell Intel Chief Executive Brian Kzanich earlier this year, who resigned before details of his relationship with a member of staff was leaked.

That’s the thing about corporate culture, it belongs to everyone and therefore applies to everyone. It is the totality of everyone’s behaviours, stories, beliefs, traditions, skills and habits. It should be defined by the staff, for the staff. Yet too many CEOs choose quick-fix solutions such as bringing in consultants to define it, going open plan to improve collaboration (when the opposite is true) or the current favourite of ‘going agile’, instead of investing time and money into helping teams to evolve it over time.

Whilst CEOs and senior managers don’t own culture, they have the power to destroy it through their actions or inactions. a  is the dichotomy of culture for those that run businesses. They know culture is important, they want to do something about it, but by doing nothing or something that isn’t the right thing, it gets worse and results continue to suffer.

This is true of sports teams that persist with a manager when the players have rejected the culture. It’s true of an engineering company where one person’s behaviour affects the work of others. It’s true of organisations, whose leaders act unethically and expect others to do likewise. Recent examples such as those at Enron and Volkswagen are a testament to this.

Culture is a set of living relationships working toward a shared goal. It’s how things get done at all levels of an organisation.

Put another way, culture is teamwork. Get your teamwork right and you have a good culture. Good culture leads to happy people. Happy people feel empowered to make decisions and to do their best work. This work leads to good results. Good results benefit the staff and company and consequently, lift the culture.

Good culture leads to happy people. Happy people feel empowered to make decisions and to do their best work. This work leads to good results. Good results benefit the staff and company and consequently, lift the culture.

Conversely – get your teamwork wrong and you have a poor culture. Poor culture leads to unhappy people. Unhappy people don’t feel empowered to make decisions and inertia sets in. Targets are missed and opportunities are lost. Good members of staff leave and the culture suffers.

McDonald’s sit in the former camp and has a strong well-defined culture. In organisations where the culture isn’t as strong it might have been easy for others to walk past Mr Easterbrook’s behaviour, explaining or excusing it away – ‘he’s divorced’, ‘he’s the CEO’ and so on. However, McDonald’s have rightly taken a hard line and Easterbrook himself admits that he ‘demonstrated poor judgement’.

Colin D. Ellis –

As soon as you start having one rule for one, and one for another, you create ‘special’ people with their own set of rules. They are the people that fly business class when everyone else flies economy, have a parking space right outside the front door, get the final say on the Christmas party and are allowed to get a taxi home. This is the kind of action that undermines workplace cultures around the world and leads to falling productivity, engagement and profitability.

Culture runs through the heart of every organisation and if one person behaves outside of what’s been agreed, then it’s important that this is dealt with empathetically but quickly. Culture belongs to everyone, so everyone – including the CEO – must be held to account to it.

Colin D. Ellis is the author of ‘Culture Fix: How to Create a Great Place to Work’ (Wiley £15.50). Find out more about Colin at

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