It’s a quote that’s so good people can’t stop using it, even if they can’t all agree on the source:
Culture eats strategy for breakfast.
Many sources attribute the saying to famed management consultant Peter Drucker, but the earliest iterations are found without his name on them. Either way, it’s a bit of received wisdom in the business world that fits in nicely with Drucker’s ideas about decentralization and a need for empowerment and community.
If it’s true, then it makes much of the work of organizational leadership a social rather than strategic effort. You’re going to spend more of your time trying to shape the culture of your organization than you will making grand plans for taking over the world… because without a culture that supports them, all your plans are worthless.
So it’s time for you to take time out from your visionary daydreams and to page through these top ten tips for shaping company culture.
1. Understand What Culture Is
Or what it’s not—it’s not a list of buzzwords, it’s not a bunch of motivational posters slapped up on the walls, and it’s not just offering free coffee and soft drinks. Culture is a social phenomena that is:
Organizational leadership programs, particularly those that develop your skills in organizational culture, help you understand the roots of culture so you really know what’s involved in connecting with the people around with.
2. Understand the Shape it’s Already In
We get it—you’re fired up, you have the right experience, the right education, and you want to get things done. But there’s wisdom in waiting, particularly when it comes to shaping corporate culture.
Unless you’re starting up from scratch, your company already has a culture. You may think you can do better, but stop for a moment: there’s a reason things are the way they are in that culture today.
Until you understand the reasons that a particular set of cultural traits and attitudes exist, it’s foolish to start messing around with them. You may just end up with something worse if you can’t fix the essential conditions they have grown from.
3. Build on Firm Foundations
That leads to the next bit of advice—make sure you are building a culture on strong footings. You already know that change doesn’t happen overnight. But in their eagerness for success, some leaders don’t put in the solid footing their company culture needs to support their grand plans.
So you can’t just fast forward. You may need to start tweaking some of the deepest aspects of your corporate culture, using leadership skills in areas like diversity, equity, and inclusion and social and organizational psychology to set the right conditions to build a supportive culture.
4. Don’t Fight the Tide
It’s not impossible to reverse a cultural trait 180 degrees from where it is currently aimed, but it’s not easy, either. How much time and energy is it worth? Wise corporate leaders understand how to gauge the ebb and flow of culture and set it on a path that isn’t just an improvement, but is also easy to achieve.
For example, if you’re trying to build a culture of support and encouragement in an organization that has prized cut-throat individuality for decades, don’t try to fast-forward into kumbaya unity. Instead, find ways to split the difference, leveraging the selfishness by basing compensation on team performance or offering personal incentives to staff who go out of their way to support teammates. There’s always a way to get where you want to go, but swimming with the current will get you there faster.
5. Think How Culture Impacts Performance
Organizational leaders are supposed to think strategically, and here’s your chance: just because a particular set of cultural values might sound cool, that doesn’t make them useful.
For example, the trend in tech businesses today is to move fast and break things. Cultures that encourage risk-taking and experimentation might be a good fit for cutting edge companies exploring new artificial intelligence techniques. But when you’re running a CPA firm, that kind of culture might have some truly unfortunate effects on your overall performance. Pick out cultural traits that line up with your mission, not just what you’re reading about in Fortune magazine.
6. Hire Your Culture
Although leaders definitely have an impact on corporate culture, a lot of it will come from the ground up. And that can make your team’s personality a big factor.
So if you really believe that culture eats strategy, think about corporate culture first, and job skills second when you are interviewing and hiring. The most talented candidate may serve your strategy best. But the best fit for your cultural goals may actually be the best choice for the company.
7. Stop Talking About It
Almost every company has a mission and values statement today that describes their corporate culture. And almost all of them are entirely inaccurate. The 2019 Culture 500 study by MIT Sloan found almost no correlation between cultural values companies expressed and the actual values noted by employees. Where there was correlation, it was often negative—the corporate culture was actually opposite the value statement.
So the message is clear: stop yakking about values and start living them. Your staff will pay a lot more attention to what you do than to what you say—do the right thing, and so will they.
8. Make Cultural Values Actionable
Also according to MIT Sloan, the single most common word in company cultural value statements was “integrity.” It’s true that integrity is a value—but what exactly does it look like from day to day to the average employee? What actions do you take to perform integrity? For that matter, how about other common values like collaboration, communication, or customer focus?
For any of those to show up in the culture, you have to find ways to tie them to things that employees can actually do on a routine basis. At Zappos, for example, an online shoe seller famous for its customer service, representatives were empowered to take all kinds of extra steps to follow-up with and celebrate their customers. The result was a culture that became legendarily customer focused… unlike most companies that claim to be customer-centric.
9. Make Them Unique, Too
Speaking of integrity and customer-centricity, don’t they sound a little generic? Along with collaboration, communication, agility, respect, and other popular cultural descriptions, they are devalued every time they appear in some random value statement that could describe a bank as well as a grocery store chain.
If your organization’s culture is an important strategic differentiator, then it should be unique. If you can describe it the same way as any other generic company in any other kind of business, you’ve already failed.
10. Lead by Example
That leads right into leading by example. Organizational leadership degrees always include components of leadership ethics. One big reason for that is that successful leaders have to lead by example—and employees quickly sniff out when that’s not happening. If you’re preaching long hours at the office but ducking out early for a round of golf on Fridays, your actions will speak much louder than your mandates. Be prepared to be the change you wish to see in your organization first.