The phrase ”culture eats strategy for breakfast” is one of those popular social media memes that, while sophisticated sounding, is actually - for the most part - wrong! It accurately acknowledges the enormous power of corporate culture in driving company performance, but it infers that culture is somehow disconnected from - or more important than - strategy. It implies that culture evolves somewhat randomly or organically. This is just nonsensical and at conflict with practical reality. Consider the following:


  • If you’re an entrepreneur and believe that the physical and emotional environment that your employees work in has an impact - to whatever degree - on your company's success, then are you really going to leave it up to chance?

  • If, as a result, you do things to positively invest in your environment because you think it will help your team perform better - then isn’t culture really a function of strategy?

  • In these instances, can’t we then fairly easily understand that culture serves strategy? Culture is created to execute critical aspects of strategy.


Do you think culture was a random thing at Zappos? What about Apple? How about Ritz Carlton? What about Red Bull? Nike? Patagonia? Do you really think that those strong and strategic cultures just rose up randomly from nothing with no leadership from above? Absolutely not. Culture was created and nurtured to deliver a certain kind of consumer experience designed to maximize financial performance. The cultures flowed from strategy.


The whole idea of “corporate culture” might be foreign to some. If you’re a left brain engineer, maybe its not the first thing that comes to mind when thinking about running your tech company. More realistically these days, you’ve heard about, and respect, its role, but perhaps have little idea how to create or manage it. Other companies try, but their efforts top out with bringing in a foosball table and having soft drinks and snacks available.


Creating a corporate culture that enhances your consumer value proposition and drives sales/profits has to be a thoughtful and strategic exercise that is actively managed.  Here are some ideas about how to create a strong and healthy one:


  • Connect the dots between your consumers’ overall brand experience and your culture. Every consumer touch point from your company communicates. It either builds or erodes your brand. Ensure that everything you do delivers a consistent message about who you are, what makes you special and different, and how you add value to consumers. Also understand that everything that happens inside the company, one way or another, always ends up seeping out to consumers and impacting their overall experience of your brand.


  • Communicate that culture is important. Ensure that everyone in the company understands that culture is important there.  Make sure that they can articulate the essence of your culture and how it is the source of value to their consumers. Allow your employees to become stewards of the culture; taking ownership and pride in it.


  • Add people wisely. Realize that you must recruit people who can both “do their job” and contribute to the culture. Probe for this fit. Test for it. Meaningfully include it into the hiring & evaluation process.


  • Create appropriate incentives. Everyone understands incentives around job performance. Smart leaders also know that they have to incent cultural performance as well. For example, if you want employees to be innovative, you’ve got to make it safe for them both to experiment and fail. If you want employees to ‘go the extra mile’ in helping consumers, then you’ve got to both train them on what that means, and then empower them to deliver their best service. When I ran a startup software company, as a part of the regular job performance process, we actually evaluated employees on their contributions to the company culture. Their bonus compensation depended on it!


  • Model the behaviors and culture you want. Employees will mimic what they see their leaders doing. Be thoughtful and diligent about consistently displaying the behaviors you want out of everyone in the company. For example, if you say you want employees to think critically and not be afraid to speak up about things, but never display that attribute publically yourself, then you deliver the message that you’re really not interested in that goal.


  • Quickly remove cultural outliers. Everyone does their best to hire “good” people. Once you discover that someone is not going to be a good fit, then you’ve got to remove them as quickly as possible. That someone is not a good fit doesn’t speak to their professional capabilities or who they are as a person - it just says that they aren’t right for your company.  It’s not personal. Removing them actually is in the employee’s best interest too. Respect the culture and your goals enough to thoughtfully, but swiftly, act accordingly.


  • As your strategy shifts, evolve your culture accordingly. If culture is a tool, then realize that as your strategy changes, you must also finely adjust aspects of your culture to accommodate it. For example, if Walmart realized it needed to create a more service-oriented retail experience, then it would have to adjust its culture to orient, train, and incent its employees to deliver against that strategy.


Successfully running a company is like managing a garden. It requires that you choose the right seeds (strategy) for what you want to grow (corporate objectives). It demands that you plant those seeds in fertile soil (company culture), and that it be nurtured and tended diligently. It requires that you remove the weeds (employees & behaviors that don’t fit the culture) and that you devote appropriate attention and care to this on a daily basis. Although often difficult to do well, its something that every entrepreneur must invest in creating. Their financial and corporate well being depend on it.


Get in touch with me if you’d like some additional perspective about how to connect the dots between your brand, your consumer value proposition, and your corporate culture.

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Tags: brand, culture, entrepreneurship, startup, strategy


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