Peter Drucker is credited as saying, “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.” I don’t agree. Not only did he not originate the statement, but the statement itself is wrong. If anything, culture gives life to your strategy. Without strategy, a business is without aim and is void of an end game. However, strategy left to its own, without a vibrant culture, will inevitably be stale, uninspiring and therefore lifeless. With a focus on business culture, your strategy will become a breathing, living force that drives the company toward greater results.
I was recently invited to speak at the Idaho Insurance Underwriters Association about business ethics and culture. I discussed how business culture brought life to their business strategy, rather than eating it like a crazed, out of control monster. Here’s how I described culture and strategy:
“I would say that culture is the oxygen that strategy breathes. Think of your strategy as the lungs of your business and culture as the air. Now, how important is it that your culture (air) is healthy? Health Insurance Underwriters know that one of the main questions when qualifying an individual for insurance is… ‘Are you a Circus Performer?’ Just kidding! Although I suppose it’s not a bad question when underwriting insurance. The question that does appear on every insurance application is, ‘Are you a smoker?’ In the same way, your culture quality is imperative when you are considering how healthy your strategy will be.”
A toxic culture of distrust, disloyalty, dishonesty, and so on will cause your lungs (strategy) to become toxic. If your company is breathing polluted air, it may be capable of breathing for some time, but the long-term impact is devastating. This is why you can’t assume that even if your strategy seems to be working, the culture will remain without intentional focus and investment. So what actions should a business take to ensure its air (culture) quality is exceptional?
Start with your company values and purpose statement. If you were to survey your employees and customers, does your business culture align with your values? I’ve discovered it’s rare to find a business owner that is truly in touch with their culture in the same way their employees are. Rather than analyzing your culture, what if you asked those around you to give honest feedback as to whether your purpose statement is being lived out and isn’t just printed on a poster in the break room. Begin with your values and purpose, and go through the process of alignment to both culture and strategy. It’s not an easy, overnight fix, but over time, you will feel the clean air and know that the health of your culture is providing strength to the strategy that drives your company toward greater results.