Culture Trumps Strategy


Originally attributed to Peter Drucker as “culture eats strategy for breakfast” this thought is more relevant than ever today. In the era of the #metoo and #timesup movements, culture is pushing its way into the light after decades of being talked about but not understood.

It’s not just sexism, discrimination, or any of the other isms that pervade our discussion today. It’s more like “in-ism.” You’re inside the circle or you’re not. Companies tout their culture as their secret sauce, having no idea about what their culture really is. It doesn’t come by decree. It comes from the daily behaviors of the vast majority of employees and the way those behaviors are rewarded, ignored, or punished.


Culture is rarely changed by employee engagement initiatives, unless those initiatives start at the top and involve leaders modeling behavior consistently. Otherwise, they can reinforce the hypocrisy that many employees witness every day. We talk about inclusion, about ownership mentality, and what we get instead is the finding of an analysis that says that the odds of being selected for “ right-sizing” are correlated with how many times the words coffee, golf, and football are exchanged between bosses and employees. We find that employees who volunteer for expat assignments are given no re-entry support. We find that people who risk their futures and trust their employers who say “we reward risk-taking” are let go as soon as the numbers are not there. Culture drives results. Behavior drives culture. And lack of attention and consistency breeds mediocrity.


Stephen Sadove, chairman and chief executive of Saks, agrees that culture drives numbers: “Culture drives innovation and whatever else you are trying to accomplish within a company — innovation, execution, whatever it’s going to be. And that then drives results.”


The lessons are so simple. And they all have to do with emotional intelligence, respect for individuals, and a genuine concern for how people interact – all while keeping the eye on the ball of a team pulling together in the same direction.


A former executive of a famous German car company who spoke to a company gathering I once attended used the analogy of a race car team. People are allowed to talk, question, collaborate on topics like benefits, salary, working conditions all day long. But when they get to the pits and their job is to change tires in mere seconds, nobody is allowed to stop and say “but what about my health insurance?” It has moved to execution at that point, and the time for talk is over. The key is that discussion is welcome at any other time and that everyone understands the goals, the game plan, and their role.


Performance and retention are influenced heavily by the overall climate, and the things people witness every day and in every interaction. Is there a “seat at the table” in which a select number of people make decisions and where many at that table are steeped in orthodoxy? Truth-blind, because you can’t read a label from inside a jar? Are people let go despite their performance because they don’t fit a certain age or profile that is easier to manage? Is there an open environment where listening occurs, where ideas are considered thoughtfully and not dismissed? Are people regularly coached?


You can only change culture through daily behaviors that reinforce the atmosphere you think or wish you had.

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