by Alex Brueckmann, author of “The Strategy Legacy: How To Future-Proof A Business And Leave Your Mark“
Every industry buzzes with catchphrases that capture attention and spark debates. One such phrase that often evokes mixed reactions is “culture eats strategy for breakfast.” While it may sound profound, I cringe when I hear it. Let’s delve into the reasons behind my skepticism and explore the nuanced relationship between strategy and culture.
Reason 1: It’s an excuse for leadership failure.
When a new strategy is introduced, it signifies change. However, if the existing organizational culture is resistant to change, it is the responsibility of leaders to navigate this challenge successfully. Effective leadership entails communicating the strategy, engaging employees, and helping them understand their roles in bringing the strategy to life. It is unfair to solely blame culture when leaders fail to communicate and rally the workforce effectively. By addressing communication gaps and fostering a culture of openness, leaders can bridge the divide and create an environment conducive to strategic success.
When a new strategy required sales leaders to shift focus from being a top sales rep to coaching the teams to higher performance, I witnessed this phenomenon first hand. Despite all the support and training provided, the sales leaders still felt uncomfortable. They came up with all kinds of excuses why this wouldn’t be the best use of their time, and why the teams wouldn’t accept this shift in involvement. The main argument was that the culture wasn’t ready for it. What they didn’t embrace: it was their very responsibility to shape a new culture through stepping up their game as leaders.
Reason 2: Strategy shapes culture.
While culture undoubtedly influences an organization’s dynamics, the reverse is equally true: strategy shapes culture. Business strategy provides a guiding framework that aligns organizational goals, clarifies expectations, and fosters transparency. When strategy is well-defined and effectively communicated, it eliminates excuses for undesired behavior and resource wastage. It empowers employees to become advocates for change, encouraging them to embrace the strategy and contribute to a high-performance culture. By leveraging strategy as a catalyst for cultural transformation, organizations create an environment that embraces innovation, collaboration, and adaptability.
An executive team I worked with had redefined their target industries and consequently identified target clients. The team realized that their business’s unique strengths differentiated them from the competition for particular clients in a specific revenue range. They explicitly decided against working for the largest players in the industry: because the service levels these accounts asked for required a number of resources the business was unwilling to provide. At that point, the VP of sales made a comment that reflected the power of strategy: “My team might not be overly happy to hear about this decision, but it gives them the clarity they need, to appropriately handle incoming requests. Now we can focus all resources into one aligned direction.”
Reason 3: Peter Drucker NEVER said it.
Misattributions are not uncommon, and the phrase “culture eats strategy for breakfast” falls into this category. In fact, it has been erroneously attributed to management guru Peter Drucker. For those who doubt this claim, a simple visit to the Peter Drucker Forum website will reveal a collection of Drucker misquotations, with “Culture Eats Strategy for Breakfast” being one of them.
What Drucker said was this: “Culture — no matter how defined — is singularly persistent.” Drucker emphasized the persistence of culture, regardless of its specific definition. Culture is a deeply ingrained force within organizations that influences behaviors, values, and decision-making. It remains resilient even amidst changes in strategies or structures. Leaders must recognize and understand the existing culture to shape it in line with desired outcomes. Cultivating the desired culture requires attention and promotion of behaviors that support strategic direction.
The Dynamic Relationship Between Strategy and Culture
To truly grasp the intricate relationship between strategy and culture, we must recognize that they are intertwined and influence one another in a continuous feedback loop. A well-crafted strategy considers the existing culture, leveraging its strengths while addressing areas that require improvement. At the same time, a healthy organizational culture is characterized by values, norms, and behaviors that align with the strategic direction. Conversely, a misaligned or toxic culture can undermine even the most brilliant strategy. Therefore, leaders must cultivate a culture that supports and reinforces the desired strategic outcomes. This involves fostering open communication, encouraging collaboration, recognizing, and rewarding desired behaviors, and providing opportunities for growth and development.
The relationship between strategy and culture is complex and multifaceted. While the catchphrase “culture eats strategy for breakfast” may grab attention, it oversimplifies the reality. Strategy and culture are not adversaries; when aligned, they drive organizational success. Leaders must take responsibility for effectively communicating and implementing strategy, while also nurturing a culture that supports the desired strategic outcomes. By understanding the dynamic interplay between strategy and culture, organizations can navigate change, drive innovation, and foster a high-performance environment that propels them towards their goals.
Alex Brueckmann is author of “The Strategy Legacy: How To Future-Proof A Business And Leave Your Mark”, is an executive thought partner, strategy facilitator, and speaker. He talks about the power of strategy and identity, transformation leadership, purpose, impact, and legacy.