“Culture eats strategy for breakfast.” Mark Fields, former CEO of Ford Motor Company

Fields popularized this phrase in 2006 but it’s also been attributed to business guru Peter Drucker. There’s no evidence that Drucker ever said this but no matter. Drucker did believe that a company’s culture normally thwarts any attempt to create or enforce a strategy that is incompatible with it.

But culture and strategy are inextricably linked. I like to think of them as a natural pairing. If we’re talking breakfast, they are like bacon and eggs.

Strategy provides the clarity and focus needed to move the organization forward. Culture is the unspoken rules, behaviors, and mindset that can advance or deter that strategy.

Many leaders are good at laying out the strategy and plans for execution but, because culture seems “squishy,” they overlook it. They don’t understand the power the it holds over their success.

Scholars anchor culture archetypes in Jungian psychology. (Carl Jung was a Swiss psychiatrist and psychoanalyst who founded analytical psychology.) But let’s not worry about the scholars or Carl – any observer of business can see that company cultures are different; your company’s reaction to strategy will depend on it.

Retail giant Nordstrom is known for its one employee rule, “Use good judgment in all situations.” That one rule empowers its employees to do the right thing without lots of policies and procedures. But a company with a “command and control” culture likely would not be able to deploy so much decision-making to its line employees.

A client company of mine was under-performing for several years. To address the problem, the Board hired a new CEO and CFO who were well known for their expertise in operational efficiency. Well, they helped clean up many of the inefficiencies alright but, as they did so, they alienated most employees. This company culture was “caring,” steeped in strong relationships and a prized work-family balance. The changes implemented by the new executives were disrespectful of the norms. They did acknowledge the culture but dismissed it as antiquated. Guess what? After a couple of years, the CEO and CFO were thanked for their contributions and fired. Next time around, the Board looked for a CEO who was more in sync with the company’s culture. He’s doing great.

Does that mean that a culture should never be changed, even if it is working against the sustainability of the company? No. But proceed with patience. Think of culture change as an evolution, not a revolution. If you decide it must change, it cannot be dictated. Saying so won’t make it so.

So, what do you do if you must evolve a culture to support your business strategy?

  • Acknowledge the current culture: Understand what it is you’re trying to change. Use its strengths. Does your “caring” culture limit your speed? How about using the relationship part of “caring” to form innovation teams of employees who already know and like each other? Do a little reading about culture and how it can drive business growth. If you need convincing, the Harvard Business Review and other business journals have lots of articles on the topic. (See below.)
  • Paint the vision: Clearly define where you’re going, using words that all your employees can understand. Stay away from language used for the stock analysts or PhDs.
  • Engage the early adopters: Identify formal and informal leaders in the company who are solidly behind the culture shift and use them as influencers and role models. They can demonstrate the behaviors needed in the future culture.
  • Engineer it: There are three steps. First, make it feel familiar. Use metaphors to liken the shift to something positive your employees know – like going from a flip phone to a smartphone. Second, give employees a sense of control. Explain exactly what is changing and how the change will impact them. The fewer surprises, the more safe and predictable the shift will feel. Third, orchestrate success. Create and celebrate small wins that demonstrate how people will work in the evolving culture. For example, help a department of technical support reps find a way to shorten call time – even a little bit – while maintaining the customer experience.
  • Sustain attention: Align everything – organization structure, business processes, reward/recognition programs, etc. – toward the target culture.

Enjoy your breakfast.

To Learn More

The Leader’s Guide to Corporate Culture by Boris Groysberg, Jeremiah Lee, Jesse Price, and J. Yo-Jud Cheng, Harvard Business Review, Jan-Feb 2018.

Mapping the Organizational Psyche: A Jungian Theory of Organizational Dynamics and Change by John G. Corlett and Carol S. Pearson, Gainesville, FL: CAPT, 2003.