Culture eats strategy for breakfast, lunch and dinner

Strategy is important, very important. The people to implement that strategy? The way they behave and organize to make decisions and get the job done? The strategy is useless without the people to implement it.

I have spent considerable amounts of time over the past few years thinking about organizations’ cultures.  I have had the privilege of assisting many organizations with building aspects of their culture.  I have chosen to walk away from a couple when the characteristics of the culture did not align with my personal values.  I have mourned the loss of some fabulous cultures when they changed.  Recently there seems to be more and more attention given to culture.  “Culture eats strategy for breakfast” is a phrase being thrown around rather frequently.  Changing workforce, trends in society, “#metoo”, and focus on D&I (diversity and inclusion) all seem to be components contributing to the increase in attention on culture.

Let’s start with the relevant definition of culture according to Webster:

1a: the customary beliefs, social forms, and material traits of a racial, religious, or social group also : the characteristic features of everyday existence (such as diversions or a way of life) shared by people in a place or time

b: the set of shared attitudes, values, goals, and practices that characterizes an institution or organization

c: the set of values, conventions, or social practices associated with a particular field, activity, or societal characteristic

d: the integrated pattern of human knowledge, belief, and behavior that depends upon the capacity for learning and transmitting knowledge to succeeding generations

Many times, people talk about building cultures in organizations. The reality is that no matter how small or large an organization, a culture already exists. The question becomes: What culture exists and is it different than the desired one you want to “build”?

Building a culture where an organization is aligned around certain sets of shared beliefs, attitudes, goals and practices is not easy and doesn’t happen overnight.  It takes time.

Let’s focus today on values. Many organizations say they have them. They are on their websites, walls, etc.

An organization’s values CAN be one of the foundational elements in building an aligned culture.  Values that exist only on paper and walls and not in the practices and behaviors of individuals, especially leaders, can be more damaging.  More damaging, in fact, if the witnessed behavior is counter to the values proclaimed by the organization.

Building the desired culture and values starts with top leadership, both internal and external. This includes the board and/or investors that hold influence. The beliefs and behaviors of leadership will drive the culture of the entire organization. Defining the values for the organization requires some tough conversations. Conversations where differences in opinions, personalities, worldviews and cultures come into play.

For example, it is easy to put something like “integrity” on the list of values for an organization. We all believe in integrity, right?

I am sure we do, but do we all define it the same way in terms of behaviors and practices? I’m sure we do not.

Let’s take a group of executives sitting around the table defining integrity.  Getting all to agree on the answers to the following questions can be interesting and challenging.  Corresponding behavioral responses are required to truly define the values and assure that all the leaders in the organization are aligned and serve as the foundation on which to build.

  • Cashflow is tight and the Controller decides to hold off on an invoice for 10-15 days even though the agreement with the vendor is to pay in 30. Has the Controller acted according to the value of “integrity”?
  • Oops! A mistake was made with a client that they will never know. What action if any should the person responsible for that account take to be aligned with the value?
  • An employee with good performance forgets to write a required report and, when asked for it, creates it and lies, says it had been sent two weeks prior. What action if any should their supervisor or HR take?
  • You or another leader is late for a meeting and don’t let anyone know you will be late. Was that operating with integrity?
  • Someone is caught taking something that does not belong to them out of the common area that is of little monetary value. What action would you expect HR to take when they are brought in, if any, to be aligned with the value of integrity?


Those are just a sample of the questions that help truly define the values of an organization in a way that translates into behavior at all levels. Another great question to ask when developing and finalizing values is “Will we fire someone if they behave in a way that is not according to this value?”. This helps you decide if you really mean it and how to communicate the value to the organization.

Policies, practices, behaviors, and decisions at all levels should be aligned with a set of values. This can be one of the greatest tools for developing a desired culture.

Stay tuned for the next episode on building culture.