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Culture Eats Strategy for Lunch

Peter Drucker, the famous business consultant, never said, "Culture eats strategy for lunch (or breakfast or any other meal)" despite the fact that he often gets credited for it. However, the fact that Drucker did not say it does not make it any less true, and it is an important concept that leaders ought to internalize.

Most leaders can describe their company’s strategic direction. However, ask a leader what the company’s culture is and most stutter a platitudinal answer. They really don’t know what the business’ culture is. Their ignorance is not that surprising, for culture is so encompassing, it is almost always invisible for those enveloped in it. Like the famous fish who will be the last to notice water, leaders assume their culture is universal and “normal,” so they fail to identify the unique aspects of it. Leaders do that at their own peril, for it is a company’s culture that will drive its ability to implement change.

I have had personal experience with the strength of culture and how it affects change. In the first school I led, the strategic plan called for us to implement a project based curriculum. The plan was created with the input of leadership, parents and teachers. Everyone agreed to the wisdom of the strategy and the need to transform teaching from teachers lecturing and children filling out worksheets to a more dynamic pedagogical approach. However, the implementation of the plan went terribly.

Despite the language people used, the culture of the school was very traditional. In their hearts, teachers believed that the old way was the best way. The school was founded by a traditional educator and she hired traditional teachers. The school was structured in a traditional way and the teachers felt comfortable with that approach. Further the teachers were almost entirely female as was the previous leader. The culture bristled at the leadership of a man. As a result, the school remained almost entirely project free even after two years of my constantly pushing.

In hindsight, I realized that my approach to implementing the change was misguided. Instead of focusing on the strategy, I should have worked to change the culture. Many leaders shy away from working on the culture because that work is harder than devising strategy or crafting a strategic plan.

The first step in changing culture is to recognize what the culture really is. You can get some idea by asking your employees and customers what they see as the most important attributes of the company. After identifying the culture, the leader must decide what she wants the culture to be. Then she must do the hard work to change it.

The most important element in changing the culture is the behavior of the leader. Leaders must personify the culture. Second, the leader must be clear about what the culture is evolving to and ask for buy-in with the change. Then she must reward behaviors that move towards the new culture and disincentivize behaviors that do not. Finally, and hardest, the leader must be able to make changes in personnel. Culture and the way people look at life are deeply ingrained and some team members may not want to or be unable to change. These people must be let go in order for the culture to evolve.

The most important work of a leader is to be the face of the company’s culture. This is easier if the leader embraces the current culture and much more difficult if the culture needs to be changed. But either way, the leader’s most important task is to create and be the guardian of the company’s culture.

It may be worth the time to become an anthropologist and investigate your company’s culture. What do you see that is moving the company forward and what part of the culture is impeding progress?


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