Strategy Isn’t The Silver Bullet

Strategy Isn’t The Silver Bullet

To hit the bull’s-eye, organizational culture must be considered.

I just don’t understand how we blew it—where we went wrong,” our president said. “Our strategy was spot on-target according to our extensive market research and our deep understanding of our customers. We should’ve kicked our competitors’ butts!”

This conversation happened several years ago with the head of a subsidiary company who reported to me, but I remember it clearly because it illustrated perfectly a strategy not being the silver bullet it was expected to be. The president and his team had done all the right things to develop an aggressive strategic plan: analyzed the business’ strengths and weaknesses, market trends, competitive environment and intensity, threats, opportunities and so on—before formulating a strategy that was measurable. They had even included detailed action plans, tactics and accountabilities for everyone in their department.

But they forgot one critical element: the corporate culture of their organization and its ability to execute those aggressive strategies. It was like giving the keys of a shiny new Maserati to someone who didn’t like to drive, so they just left it in the garage and kept on taking the bus instead.

Strategy is often hailed as the elixir to cure all problems. An element too often forgotten: that strategy is executed one person and one project at a time, within the context of corporate culture. In other words, it’s much more complex than one might realize. You can’t just snap your fingers, develop elaborate slide presentations, make a few inspiring speeches and expect strategy to happen. Instead, you need to also make sure your organization’s culture is healthy, vibrant and aligned to support the implementation of your strategies.

Corporate culture defined

Culture is one of those fuzzy concepts that’s difficult to define. It’s the blend of what’s held important, which behaviors are rewarded, who fits in and how things get done. It’s the combination of attitudes, values and actions in an organization. It’s what creates a collective environment that subconsciously drives the organization’s success. It’s the organization’s “code.”

Therefore, culture determines and drives your operations. It begins at the top with vision, mission, corporate values and the thousands of little things leaders do that signal to everyone else what’s important and how they get rewarded. Corporate culture determines whether your team is motivated by performance or is OK with mediocrity. Culture is what gets the team engaged in serving customers or makes them just show up to get a paycheck. And culture is how teamwork is promoted and group effort is encouraged—or how working within departmental silos and politics becomes the norm.

Signs of an unhealthy culture

If you’re wondering which side of the culture coin your business falls on, look for these five signs of an unhealthy culture:

  • Broken communications: Do communication patterns about management’s decisions tend to withhold information, mislead certain people to avoid conflict, or include sarcasm and cynicism?
  • Chaotic and inconsistent implementation: Does implementation of policies and procedures appear to be inconsistent from an employee viewpoint? From the customer’s experience, does “customer satisfaction” seem an oxymoron?
  • Unappreciated and frustrated employees: Do employees seem to be happy to be at work most days, or is there a general malaise?
  • Toxic leadership: Do leaders at any level act with arrogance or self-absorption, not listen to either customers or employees, and behave as though they are demigods?
  • History of repeated failures: Has it become the norm for new strategies and projects to start off with a bang, then fizzle out?

The cure

Building a healthy corporate culture takes time, attention and commitment. It is a process akin to a marathon, not a sprint. If any of the above signs are evident in your organization, you must be patient and persistent to effect change and reverse these unhealthy culture indicators.

Every day, remind yourself to focus on being an inspired leader who models transparent communication and values accountability. Despite your very best efforts, don’t assume strategies and important policies and procedures will be implemented with urgency and consistency; rather, assume they will fail without careful attention to your organization’s culture and its ability to implement them.

The word “organization” is a derivative of the word “organism,” which is a “form of life composed of mutually interdependent parts that maintain various vital processes” ( Envision your business as an organism that lives and breathes as its interdependent parts work together. Just as organisms thrive with healthy nutrition and clean air, organizations with healthy habits and vibrant leadership cultivate a thriving organizational culture. It’s how you achieve sustainable, long-term success—not by simply shooting a strategy silver bullet at a target and hoping it will hit the bull’s-eye.

Mark W. Sheffert ( is founder, chairman and CEO of Manchester Companies, Inc., a Minneapolis-based advisory services firm specializing in business recovery, transformation, performance improvement, board governance, and litigation support.

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