CSO: Chief Spirit Officer

Francis Briers: 22nd December 2016

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CSO: Chief Spirit Officer

At this time of year people are talking about ‘the spirit of Christmas’ and ‘getting into the spirit of things’. Lots of people also reconnect with a sense of spirituality or faith too – whether it is Christmas, Hanukkah, Yule, Solstice or any other traditions or celebrations.

Something I have been thinking about in some way for many years but which has bubbled back to the surface in recent months is how we cultivate, and nourish the spirit of an organisation. I don’t necessarily mean an explicitly spiritual dimension but the essence, identity, sense of community, meaning and purpose. Often much of this gets bundled under the category of ‘Culture.’ However we label this numinous dimension of organisational life, my experience tells me that it is essential to bring attention to this domain, to consciously shape and attend to how we are together as well as what we do. If we frame it as culture, there is also lots of literature which affirms the need to invest in attending to this domain.

It’s hard to keep ‘spirit’ on the agenda

One of the things I have observed in the last year in many different organisations is the way that leaders often recognise the need to, in some way, take care of this dimension of organisational life but don’t quite know how. There are many recommendations in the raft of books out there but one of the things I notice is that it seems hard to keep ‘spirit’ on the agenda. All too often it is something which gets worked on fiercely for a while and then falls off the radar. Or it gets regular attention in executive conversations but is then too intangible to get commensurate attention once people are back with their nose to the windscreen of the commercial realities in organisational life.

One of the things which seems to lead to this variance in quality of attention, is that it is hard to know who is really responsible for the spirit of a place. Of course, like anything else important, we can say that everyone is responsible but the reality is that when a hundred things are crying for my attention, some get squeezed out. Plus, when something is hard to pin down, as well as being one of a long list of things I have been told I must be responsible for, it is understandable if my action to support the cause is similarly hard to quantify. Sometimes this sits as part of HR, sometimes within OD, sometimes with one of the operational leaders who has a passion for it. However, it is likely to be one of many responsibilities and if this person doesn’t sit on the Exec then they may also lack the position to ensure that this vital aspect of organisational life stays truly present on the collective agenda.

Some of the clients I work with have started to use the word ‘spirit’ and I am interested in this. Whether it is a formal term or just in conversational parlance “…in the spirit of…” There is a way that it makes sense to me. I get curious about the concept of a ‘Chief Spirit Officer.’  When any of these things become formalised in a role there can of course be a danger that other leaders abdicate responsibility for the thing saying “It’s his job, not mine,” but equally if there is no representative, then spirit has no voice in the system, no true advocate.

What would a CSO do?

What would a CSO do? How is it different to a Culture role? I’ve come to see that this concept intersects with something I explored many years ago: Organisational Ministry. Again, this doesn’t have to be aligned to any specific spiritual or faith tradition but is more about a kind of community and pastoral care which does not sit within the organisational hierarchy and is not associated with systems of management and performance in the way HR is. I have come across instances of Interfaith Ministry being very successfully employed in organisations so this idea has seen some testing. With the need for greater organisational agility, self-organisation and communities shaped by distributed leadership are becoming increasingly common in modern organisations and I predict will eventually become the norm, replacing more conventional hierarchies. Nurturing a true spirit of community will be critical to organisational health in that environment.

So, what would a CSO do? Here is my early thinking:

·        Sit on the board as a voice for Spirit – how people are doing and what the interpersonal dynamics are in the wider community – what needs attending to.

·        Mentor in self-reflection to the senior leadership to cultivate wise, long-term decision-making.

·        Curator and evolver of culture – this is not about old-fashioned control or ‘culture change’ programmes, it is about constant nurturing of a collective identity which is healthy and inclusive.

·        Catcher of stories – in Jon Young’s brilliant work with communities drawing on both modern anthropological research and ancient traditions he has identified the role of story in collective learning and our human need to have companions and elders to receive or ‘catch’ our stories and help us distil and anchor how our experiences are shaping us.

·        ‘Village Elder’ – this doesn’t have to mean they are old (it’s an elder not an older)! This is that element of pastoral care which is not ‘official’ in the way HR support or an EAP package is. A trusted person who is part of the community to help everyone navigate the tough moments in life more gracefully and celebrate the joyful moments more fully.

These are early thoughts but sit on the foundation of years of pondering. I don’t know whether there is a place for such a role but I can see huge value in it, especially as I have mentioned in the kind of progressively self-organising, agile, community-based organisation which I think is the future shape of many businesses. Certainly based on what we are seeing in our work with clients, leaders are being asked to do more with less and are facing increasing levels of uncertainly which is meaning the kind of pastoral care I have described is needed and people often don’t know where to turn.

If you would like to have a conversation about shaping and evolving the spirit and culture of your business or organisation then please feel free to get in touch (email below). If you would like to know more about our work at DPA with leading and evolving culture then let me know and I can send you a paper I recently wrote on the subject, including some key principles and case studies.

Thanks for reading and I wish you all a wonder-filled Christmas and a joyful start to your new year.

PS – I promise I have not been drinking the Tequila in the office!





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