Did you ever work at McDonald's?

I had friends who did in high school. They had a lot of fun. In fact, in some of its recruiting campaigns, that's what McDonald's has tried to stress: make work fun.

But now the new CEO of McDonald's is faced with a tough challenge: cleaning up a company that reportedly embraced a certain kind of fun that can ultimately get people in trouble: drinking, partying, and "fraternizing between some senior managers and rank-and-file employees," as the Wall Street Journal described it.

This isn't about McDonald's hamburgers, or menu changes, or technology.  

Instead, it's about McDonald's culture. And with an organization the size of McDonald's, the culture is both a corporate leader's biggest challenge, and his most attractive opportunity.

Why he's the new CEO

We can't address this without some brief mention of why Chris Kempczinski is the McDonald's chief executive officer.

Namely, it's because his predecessor, Steve Easterbrook, was fired after he "he violated company policy and demonstrated poor judgment involving a recent consensual relationship with an employee," as the company put it in a press release.

Easterbrook didn't object; he was quoted in an email sent to all employees saying that he'd made "a mistake," and agreed with the board that it was "time for me to move on."

But the Journal says it McDonald's corporate culture was defined by more than just this one incident that felled its former CEO.

"There is a cultural shift here now," a Journal source (described as someone "familiar with the new CEO's plans" said. "Some people perceived there was this macho, guys club. That has now progressed to a more open leadership under Chris." 

The challenge of changing culture

Not long ago, I had what I call a "suddenly, I get it" moment. 

It was after the top U.S. Navy SEAL admiral tore into all of the roughly 2,500 Navy SEALs under his command, after a few SEALs were charged with some very serious crimes, and an entire Navy SEAL team was sent home from Iraq for misconduct.

His opening line: "Our force has drifted from our Navy core values..."

And, the admiral set out to try to change the entire predominant culture of the Navy SEALs.

Is McDonald's as important an institution as the Navy? Actually, you could argue that it is: at least insofar as it's a giant employer, a valuable company, and even a symbol of the United States around the world.

But after writing about this sort of thing for years, and hearing corporate leader after corporate leader talk about the importance of culture, it suddenly clicked for me.

When an organization gets big enough that the top leaders can't have direct contact with everyone, culture (and values) are the leader's most important tool.

The values of our company

When Kempczinski took over at the beginning of November, quite unexpectedly, one of his first actions was to email every single McDonald's employee.

And while his message was probably looked at by lawyers and marketing people, I was struck that the it was very forward-looking, focusing almost entirely on "our path forward together," and spending almost no time on the fact that the old CEO had just been fired.

Afterward, according to the Journal, Kempczinski held a company wide town hall, in which "the 51-year-old father of two spoke at length about his family and his Catholic upbringing."

"I have to be able to look at every single one of my senior leadership team members and say, 'Do I believe that they personify the values of our company?'" the Journal quoted him as saying. "And if they don't, they're not on the senior leadership team."

The hard part

I may know what you're thinking.

You've worked places where the leadership talked a good game about culture. Or else, you've been that leader, trying to steer an organization that's about as nimble as a battleship.

It's one thing to make changing a culture a priority. It's another thing entirely to focus on it when the quarterly numbers are looking week, and you have to explain to your investors, public or private.

The real trick is trying to do both.

The Journal reports that Kempczinski has been telling Wall Street analysts that he plans to keep moving forward on the technology plans McDonald's had begun under Easterbrook, and "work to boost sales and reverse fallen customer counts in the U.S."

But at the same time, he reportedly said in the meeting, culture has to be a priority: "We're going to be a lot better, a lot closer to where we want to be, where we aspire to be as a company."