Culture eats strategy for breakfast

A little more than six months ago, I took a new role with a group that was described as in need of a “turn-around” and an “updated strategy and direction”. I was urged to introduce a new mission/vision, strategic objectives, and revised key performance indicators. Given my performance management background, this seemed like a reasonable approach.

However, after several conversations with key internal and external stakeholders and spot-checks a few levels deeper into my new management chain, I came to the conclusion that the organization didn’t need a new strategy to solve its performance problems. While performance hadn’t been up to full potential, the issue didn’t seem to be with processes or structures or metrics.

My first few weeks on the job reinforced my initial assessment. Almost every important decision had to be made by me personally. At first I assumed this was because individual employees had little understanding of the company strategy. However, it quickly became apparent that cascading the strategy was unlikely to help because everyone was used to delegating up. After a couple of years of being told what to do and being discouraged to think for themselves, my new group had a culture problem.

A 2005 Harvard Business Review study of more than 100 corporations and thousands of executive assessments showed that culture influences leadership style more than any other factor.  Regardless of job function, employees who work in the same organization are 30% more likely to exhibit similar leadership styles than people who do the same job but work in different companies. Even strong leaders are susceptible to learned helplessness.

Because most leaders view culture as something soft and intangible, it’s often overlooked when they take a new job. However, a January 2006 Wall Street Journal article concluded that the biggest roadblocks for new leaders include:

  1. Not understanding or caring about the current culture
  2. Assuming the current leadership culture can support the new direction/strategy
  3. Not articulating his/her aspirational culture for the team

In my experience a well-designed and well-implemented strategy cannot be effective unless people are motivated to support it. This idea is captured by the mantra “culture eats strategy for breakfast”, popularized during Mark Fields tenure at Ford Motor.  Clearly culture was my job one.

So rather than working on strategy or objectives or metrics, I concentrated on changing the culture. I immediately removed myself from some of the approval chains. I delegated critical and visible decisions to my direct reports and publicly reinforced their decisions. I encouraged them to finalize some long-standing issues without vetting them with me beforehand. And perhaps most importantly, I shared all of this with my manager who went out of his way to reinforce the new style.

Of course, none of this was without some drawbacks. Not all of the decisions were consistent with my point of view. And I missed some chances to put my own imprint on the group.

But the benefits more than outweighed these downsides. Today, the difference is palatable. The team is energized, employees are more engaged, and performance is improving. What’s more, there’s a sense of teamwork that didn’t exist before.

Goals, initiatives, and metrics. I have a huge appetite for strategy management. But I shouldn’t forget that breakfast is the most important meal of the day – it all starts with culture.

(Note: This post was basis of a submission which later won the HCI Human Capital M-Prize on Leadership.)

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27 Responses to Culture eats strategy for breakfast

  1. Oski May 24, 2010 at 8:10 am #

    amen, brother. amen!

  2. paulo May 24, 2010 at 9:11 am #

    great post. looking forward to seeing this philosophy go across the organization.

  3. Robert E May 25, 2010 at 11:32 am #

    Another good example of Responsibility vs Accountability.

    When someone is engaged and motivated they will take responsibility and move things forward, often beyond expectations.

    Accountability so often means having someone to blame. In cultures like that people want to live in the shadows and delegate up as much as possible.

    When people are given, and take, responsibility they don’t mind living in the sunshine, even if it means an occasional sunburn.

  4. Bruno Aziza May 27, 2010 at 9:06 pm #

    Great post and very consistent with the research from my book, drive business performance.

    Culture eats strategy for lunch, breakfast and dinner.

    However, Culture is not a substitute for Strategy. Our observations has been that leading organizations have a sound strategy and a culture that re-inforces it.

    Great post!

    Best,
    Bruno Aziza
    On twitter @brunoaziza

  5. Cesar Ruinato May 30, 2010 at 11:54 am #

    Happy to know about your changing culture success story. I hope more and more organizations will take your experience as a model to follow.

    Great post!

    Cesar.

  6. Jonathan June 4, 2010 at 6:26 pm #

    Bruno (and others who sent me emails), I didn’t mean to imply that Culture was a substitute for Strategy. Indeed they serve different purposes. Instead I observe that sometimes we rush to change the Strategy without realizing that the Culture won’t support it. You gotta have both.

    Thanks for the nice words.

  7. Weber-Frowein June 19, 2010 at 2:21 am #

    The current, the rhythm and the heart is culture!
    Very good viewpoint — plausible description.

    lol-Brigitte

  8. Giovanni October 11, 2010 at 9:41 am #

    There is the opposite problem: excessive delegation. I’m currently working for a company which takes “employee empowerment” to extremes. What I mean by that is that the top management often seems to be following the “management by absence” book. They delegate strategic decision to first- and second-level technicians who find themselves free to decide which technology will be used without caring for the long-term implications or if those decision will even fit the company strategy.

    And besides delegating strategic decisions they also don’t make their vision known to the whole company (if they ever had one). It’s all very Web 2.0 and “cool” company.

  9. Chad Wiebesick (@Wiebesick) September 9, 2011 at 10:16 am #

    You should write a business strategy book, Jonathan. Your personal stories, like this one, really drive home important management points.

    • Jonathan September 9, 2011 at 10:53 am #

      Thanks Chad. I would like to but haven’t had the time to focus on it.

  10. MIN August 24, 2012 at 10:52 pm #

    can i use your image in my PPT??

  11. Patrick Takawira September 25, 2012 at 1:51 am #

    culture and strategy are compliments , they should always be in tandem.

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