corner office-Culture Eats Strategy-April 2012
How many times have you been involved in a strategic planning process that went like this: A small group of executives convene off-site to brainstorm strategy. In their own cocoon, they discuss the company’s strengths and weaknesses. They then discuss market research and competitive analysis, try to identify opportunities and threats, and predict the future of their industry and their company’s position within it.
The executive team then returns to the company, psyched about new strategy, markets, and products. It holds employee meetings and explains the strategy, as well as measurable objectives, tasks, and accountabilities. Sensing the enthusiasm of the executive team, but not fully understanding the impact on their jobs, everyone nods and returns to work with renewed purpose.
Then everyone returns to their daily routine while the new strategy gathers dust on the bookshelf.
Many leaders are adept at kicking off strategic plans with carefully planned schedules, budgets, processes, and PowerPoint presentations, but they forget that strategy is executed one person and one project at a time within the context of their company’s culture.
Culture is Underestimated
I have observed many mergers and acquisitions that failed because leaders overlooked or minimized cultural differences in their organizations. Also, companies spend untold hours planning and writing strategic plans, but invest little time assessing, understanding, maintaining, or changing a culture.
Culture is perhaps underestimated because it’s fungible and hard to define. Unlike financial or manufacturing metrics, cultural goals and metrics are difficult to quantify. I’ll define culture as the blend of attitudes, values, and actions in an organization that create a collective environment which subconsciously drives the organization’s ability to succeed. OK, my football and wrestling buddies are rolling their eyes, wondering if I have been inhaling glue.
Sorry, but we can’t be so primal as to not understand that culture determines:
• Whether your organization is performance-driven or accepts mediocrity.
• If employees are engaged in work or simply showing up to get a paycheck.
• If a company has the habit of utilizing internal communication and teamwork, or promotes working within cloistered silos.
Culture even determines if a company is risk-adverse.
Because culture either supports or kills strategy implementation, it’s one of the most important factors to nurture for sustainable, long-term success. Companies with great products positioned for growing markets and a foundation of solid financials cannot succeed if their corporate culture isn’t vibrant and supportive. Culture either feeds strategy or slowly eats it, like being nibbled to death by ducks.
Building Vibrant Cultures
It’s easy to note companies with passionate and engaged corporate cultures (Apple, Southwest Airlines, Disney) and assume it’s always been that way, but building a culture takes work and commitment. It is a process and not a project. Here are the qualities of a strong culture:
Inspired leadership: Vibrant cultures are inspired by leaders who are energetic and engaged. They care about vision, values, strategies, products, employees, customers, and other stakeholders. They thrive on communicating vision, mission, and goals, and believe their job is to motivate employees and give them the tools they need to do their best.
Real values: When leaders walk the talk about ethics and corporate values, the values become genuine and modeled throughout the organization. If corporate values are just a list in the employee manual, they become meaningless. If executives make the values real in the people they hire, products they create, communications they share, and actions they take, then values become a part of the culture.
Authentic accountability: If your corporate culture is one of stagnation and procrastination, the best way to jump-start it is to encourage accountability. When people know what they are responsible for and when tasks are to be finished (and have the resources to achieve them), they are empowered. They want to know what they can do to contribute to the advancement and well-being of the company and how they will be measured, held accountable, and rewarded for doing so. Empowered people nurture a corporate culture that gets excited about a new strategy, rather than viewing it as an intrusion into their world of inertia.
Unconvinced? Consider these thoughts about leadership from NFL legend Vince Lombardi: “Loyalty is the greatest of loves,” he told his audiences. Lombardi cultivated “teamwork, the love that one man has for another and that respects the dignity of another.”
In that light, another definition of corporate culture should be that it’s what pulls you together in the workplace. Businesses with new strategies launch those plans best when employees support each other within a culture of genuine emotions, values, and teamwork. You know you’ve made it when your employees care about customers, coworkers, and doing the right thing more than they care about their coffee or lunch breaks. That’s when culture nurtures strategy instead of eating it.