Is Culture Downstream from Leadership, or What?

Session Insights
Written by Emily Allen

Michael Molinaro

VP & Chief Learning Officer

New York Life

JULY 2022

In the human resources world, it is commonly assumed that organizational culture flows downstream from leadership. But does this generally accepted notion hold up to thoughtful analysis? If so, how does leadership generate organizational culture? 

These are questions Michael Molinaro, VP & Chief Learning Officer at New York Life, posed to a keynote audience at the New York CHRO Executive Summit. The answers are vital as CHROs navigate a changing world of work and shifts in how leaders and employees come together to create culture. 

What is Workplace Culture?

Molinaro starts by breaking down the basics of organizational culture. One widely taught definition of culture comes from Edgar Schein of the MIT Sloan School of Management: “a pattern of shared basic assumptions learned by a group as it solves its problems of external adaptation and internal integration.” A more layman definition is that culture is simply “how we do things around here.” 

Molinaro argues each definition misses a key piece—that culture is a lived experience for employees. Culture is born from an employee’s everyday experience and the meaning they make of it. This personal and interpretative lens serves as an important piece for CHROs to consider. Culture is not just the work or the organization, it is what it means to an employee to be connected to part of this larger system.

Does Culture Flow Downstream from Leadership?

Molinaro answers, “Yes, but it’s complicated.” Every organization maintains background practices ingrained into the everyday workings of the company. Examples of background practices include how information is shared, how mistakes are perceived and corrected, how conflict is managed, how decisions are made, and how employees learn and grow. The practices are so entrenched that they occur in the background of the organization as if second nature. 

Leaders who best reflect the organizational culture, Molinaro cites, are firmly rooted in these background practices and shine as exemplars of the culture. Molinaro leans on a metaphor of light to explain effective leadership, citing “the best leaders will shine as exemplars of the culture” and will help other employees see their own work “in this light.”

Individuals who work for leaders who shine as exemplars of the culture get to appreciate the culture and understand their work and the meaning of their work in that light.”

In today’s context of a changing world of work, where does that leave leadership and culture? The age of remote and hybrid work places the metaphorical light of the leader even further away from the employee. Over Zoom and across geographies, exposure to leadership is harder for employees to come by. 

With less guiding light to look to, the usual background practices or customs at a company may become less relevant—or even obsolete. As employees have a harder time seeing themselves as part of a larger whole, Molinaro posits that CHROs and leaders should develop a deliberate and specific approach to keep culture alive. 

The Hybrid Workplace Road Ahead

Molinaro shares three takeaways from New York Life’s journey of transforming into a hybrid organization and maintaining their culture of connection, care and community after 177 years:

  1. Intentionally create moments to shine.
    Culture absorption won’t happen by chance. Organizations and leaders instead need to be deliberate about reinforcing culture with intentionality.
  2. Gather with purpose.
    Have a reason to gather people together. Shared activities will bring people together and build a sense of shared culture.
  3. Remember “What I know” is different from “How I feel.”
    Culture should match employee experience. Statements around culture mean nothing without the background practices to match an employee’s lived experience and feelings.

While the road ahead may be bumpy, a clear understanding of the link between organizational culture and leadership can help CHROs forge ahead—as Molinaro says, culture “won’t happen by osmosis as much anymore; there’s a real need to be intentional about it and build culture reinforcement practices.”


Content adapted from the New York CHRO Executive Summit. Special thanks to all participating companies.

by CHROs, for CHROs

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