I am often surprised by how much attention and lip service business leaders dedicate to corporate strategy – often at the risk of ignoring the critical role that culture plays in achieving strategic objectives. Perhaps much of that focus originates from the fact that strategies are constantly changing and evolving while culture remains constant.
Sandra Davis, CEO of MDA Leadership Consulting, and author of the blog series Pearls of Wisdom, recently wrote an insightful post entitled “Culture Trumps Strategy.” In it, she argues that culture will either work to support or kill your strategic initiatives. Furthermore, she explains that culture ultimately comes through in actions and not words. So when you’re in the midst of leading a change initiative, and your people are not doing what they said they would do, the root causes can be elusive. So, as Peter Drucker once said, it is important to remind ourselves that “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.”
This has never been more evident to me prior to joining Marketing Architects. We pride ourselves on having built a very strong culture with clear corporate values. In doing so, we have applied some rules of engagement in three critical areas of our business to ensure we never lose site of the importance of culture:
Acquisitions and Partnerships
Sandra Davis notes a Forrester survey that revealed more than 70% of change initiatives fail because of poor business change management. Culture wins. This same line of thinking should also be applied to all of your business partnerships. Culture clashes most often occur when corporate values do not align.
It is crucial that you clearly define and openly communicate your corporate values. In addition, identifying who you are NOT as a company is as critical as defining who you are. Being authentic with your culture, and not trying to be something you’re not, will ensure that you are screening new business opportunities with the care required to ensure a synergistic business fit and long-term, profitable partnerships.
Strong cultures make it easier for you to lead your team or organization to innovative breakthroughs. A strong awareness of shared values and norms provides thought leaders with a foundation for introducing new visions for change, and critical decision making that will help kill ideas that may conflict with the core of your business.
Most importantly, a strong culture will enable the organization to learn from failure. Failure will finally be viewed and valued as a learning experience and critical to finding future success.
Perhaps the most obvious area business leaders should focus on finding a culture fit is in the process of evaluating new and existing talent. My advice is to hire slow and fire fast. Hire people with diverse perspectives & experiences, but never waver when it comes to questions about culture fit. Take precaution to ensure new hires share consistent values.
Conversely, when you have a cultural outcast, be swift with your decisions. Outcasts are like an iceberg – you only see the tip of the problem, but the span of negative impact on the business is 20x greater under the surface. What you cannot see, you will surely discover after they leave. Poor culture fit will completely negate any knowledge or experience of an employee. My simple rule of thumb, here… Keep the jerks out.
Finally, if ever you are questioning what the most important elements of your culture are, Sandra Davis offers us a great exercise. Simply finish the following sentence: “It’s interesting – people here always seem to….” in the context of decision making, communication, and the behaviors that are most recognized and rewarded. What you find may surprise you. At the very least you will know that your culture cannot be a fit for everyone… and that will benefit your company in the long run.