Why culture is more important than strategy

Sep 20 2012 by Rene Carayol Print This Article

It can be tempting for businesses to over-emphasise the focus on strategy whilst inadvertently underplaying the power of culture. I would argue that culture is in fact more important than strategy. Culture is all about the psychology, actions and beliefs of a group of people.

I believe there are two definitions of the kind of culture that creates momentum for any business. The first one is that "culture is what happens when the CEO leaves the room". The second definition is "the way we get things done around here." It is all about the attitude of those working for your company. The most important thing about culture is that it's the only sustainable point of difference for any organisation. Anyone can copy your strategy, but nobody can copy your culture. So why would you leave it untended?

The best businesses are the ones that have a culture that has grown to be bigger and stronger than any one individual. If your culture is strong then it gains power through inspiring your people to conform to it. It becomes the thing that links everyone together, no matter what department they're in. If your people become engaged with the company, the strategy is more likely to be 'owned' by all and focused upon.

Culture is ITG's biggest weapon; it is the fuel that drives the whole business forward. In employing new talent you have to be discerning in what you're looking for. I would suggest that it is better to take attitude over skills every time. We hire for attitude, we train for skills. It is more beneficial to hire someone with the right mind-set who will fit in with the culture of your company, than someone with strong skills and great experience, but an inappropriate mind-set.

The banks have been going wrong because they are perhaps far too focused on individual success rather than a team based culture. They've become far too profit-centric and far less customer-centric.

If people weren't already aware of the importance of culture then the Barclay's and HSBC situation has certainly brought it to light. Companies should be performance driven and values led. Many of the banks were simply performance driven.

No industry is exempt from the importance of culture, which is a key part of a brand's reputation. The selling off of Lloyds' 632 branches to the Co-operative Bank may well prove this. Co-op stands for values. Virgin Money's acquisition of Northern Rock will again bring their values to the fore. I think that we're starting to see clear shifts now. If you ask people the question 'Who would you want to bank with, Lloyds bank or Google?' They'd probably choose Google. If you said 'Royal Bank of Scotland or Apple?' They'd probably choose Apple.

We are going to see some interesting collaborations in the future, where the 'front end' might be a supermarket and the 'back end' might be a traditional bank. It will take many years for the banks to lose the stigma of the last five years. The biggest shift we're seeing is from product-centricity to customer-centricity. The companies that just push products will wither away; the companies that have clear values and seek to discover what the customer wants, and then deliver it, will win.

Some companies have managed to get the balance of being performance driven and values led spot on. Google is one of those companies. They are hugely performance-driven but if you speak to their people, they love working for them. One of Google's mantras is, 'Don't be evil.' I think they have been able to embed this in their organisation with much success. Virgin, and maybe more surprisingly McDonald's, have also managed to nurture a strong set of values throughout their organisations.

Culture has to originate somewhere though. It doesn't just happen. It is a leader's responsibility to identify a cultural vision for the company, live and breathe it themselves, and then help to steer the rest of the company in the right direction. Culture comes directly from the behaviour of the leaders, and it is their duty to involve and inspire the whole of the organisation.

The role of the chair is an important part of this leadership. I think that the role of the chair has changed a lot over the last ten years. The chair in the current economic climate has a very different role to the chair in the good times. I would say that in the good times the role of the chair tends to be 'steering' the strategy, steering the ship and giving some 'air cover' to the chief executive. It's never, ever about running the business.

In the recent downturn the chair gets much more involved, especially with governance - I wear my governance 'hat' a lot more and I've got a more prominent role around values and culture. In the downturn culture becomes all the more powerful. I would say it works better to appoint a chair who is external to the company. An internal chair would be far too familiar with the 'day to day' running of the business. The chair should be the voice of independence who can judge the cultural direction of a company objectively. An external chairman combined with an internal chief executive can create the 'dream ticket'.

The rise of the discerning customer and the fragmentation of the media have made culture even more important. Anyone with a mobile phone and internet connection is now effectively a member of the paparazzi, a photographer and a blogger.

The messages individuals and consumers are exposed to have changed. Before, if one customer was really upset with your product or your service they would write you a letter, or maybe even email you. That kind of complaint was containable. One tweet, however, can easily hit 100,000 people. You can no longer simply say "Oh we'll deal with that next week." Businesses must now wear their 'hearts on their sleeves' and demonstrate their values openly and honestly.

The culture of a company relies on there being a clear set of values, strong leadership and a sense of transparency and honesty between the company and the public. These factors will be the ones that differentiate your company in times of austerity and increased competition. Of course strategy is important but this must be accompanied by a strong culture if lasting success is to be won. To become truly durable your company must inspire every single one of your people and win a place in the hearts of the public. By far the best way to achieve this is through culture.


About The Author

Rene Carayol
Rene Carayol

Ren Carayol is a broadcaster, business and leadership speaker and author. Formerly a board director of Pizza Hut and IPC Media, today he is Chairman of the Inspired Thinking Group and a Visiting Professor at Cass Business School.

Older Comments

I couldn't agree more with this article. In many ways, culture is everything simply because if there is a culture match any specific job challenges can be addressed. If you have a person in the company who is struggling to accomplish a task and needs to seek assistance, it's imperative that the there is a culture of collaboration and mentorship. If you have a person who works best independently, solving problems and accomplishing tasks on his/her own, it will not work to anyone's benefit if they work somewhere that emphasizes the 'team collaborative approach.'

An honest and clear presentation of corporate culture within an organization is imperative to bring the right people on board and keep them satisfied. Ken Schmitt www.turningpointsearch.net

Ken Schmitt

Company without a culture is like an individual without soul, or like a company without mission. In my opinion, the company culture will build and drive the strategy. The culture might change sometime, once everything in doing business could change, but still is crutial for companies to have a culture. Be wise, be simple, be cool.

Ricardo Foster São Paulo, Brazil

This article represents the very foundation of why customers are the contolling factor in every business; this includes every member of our team because they represent our brand and culture to their friends and families. I have always catered more to the side of attitude rather than skills. A consumer will only become a loyal customer once they feel valued and the power of culture has the power to do this effectively only if all team members are on board.

Lisa Howe Charlotte, NC

I just loved your comment Lisa Howe! Very, very wise, simple and truthful. Like I always say in my lectures about Human Development: our heart is smarter than our brain. Think about this.

Ricardo Foster São Paulo, Brazil

Great point re strategy v culture. The most productive, motivating, hard-charging culture is the one most natural for people. That is a value-based culture wherein the highest standards of all common human values are the basis for everything.

Why? Because all people believe in the same good values and that their opposites are bad AND that the highest standard of each good value is better and more respectable than any other standard. Any workplace using those standards will excel greatly. Why? Because it will have a plethora of highly motivated, highly committed and fully engaged employees with very high morale and innovation literally loving to come to work and at least 300% more productive than if poorly engaged.

That said, most managements fail to listen to their employees face to face, fail to provide to them the information they say they want face to fact, and insist of giving them lots of orders, all of which demonstrate great disrespect. These managements always complain when their employees treat their work, their customers, each other, and their bosses with disrespect. You figure!

The secret is to hep employees to have the kind of culture they will all love and value.

Ben Simonton, Author 'Leading People to be Highly Motivated and Committed'

Ben Simonton

“ Never begin only with idea about change of culture. Always begin with a problem which has faced your organization; only then when you will understand problems of business, it is necessary to ask himself, helps or hampers the existing corporate culture in decision of these problems. Always think of culture as about a source of the force. It is the dry rest of your last successes”. Edgard Shain, professor Massachusetts Technology Institute.

Sergey Maslov

Interesting article. And yet, there are many organizations that separate culture and strategy as though one can work effectively without the other over the long term.

They think that having a set of nauseatingly cookie-cutter, me-too, amorphous, homogeneous cultural values that they dream up and impose on the organization means that they have culture. A winning culture. A customer-centric culture. Or more shallow, self-defeating terms that neglect to understand either the nature of culture or the value of strategy.

Strategy is about shaping the future. It is how we move from today to tomorrow. It is how we figure out how to travel from A to B. Brilliant strategy is about the best way of moving from means to ends. It is everything that is needed and nothing else.

Culture is about the personality and behaviors of a social group. It is the billion different ways that predict what a group of people are likely to do next. It is the manner, the flavor, the traditions, the norms, the attitudes that distinguish one group from another. This is culture. And it is both means and ends.

Culture can shape the kind of strategy that emerges, but it is not strategy. Strategy can shape the kind of culture that develops, but it is not culture. And the difference between the two means that they both matter - equally - to the survival and potential success of the group over the short, medium and long term.

A nice, kind, customer-loving, employee-hugging culture can follow an arse-about-face, ignorance-personified, wrong-in-a-thousand-ways, doomed-before-it-even-starts strategy. The strategy may start right but end wrong. The strategy may be smart except for the actions of other people, in other organizations, that make it old news, old-fashioned, out-of-date, no longer fit for purpose.

Great cultures may still collapse. Great civilizations with great cultures have disappeared. Great companies with great cultures have become bankrupt, been superseded, surpassed by supposedly lesser cultures with better strategy.

Evolution, as I argue in Adaptability, does not care what we think. It doesn't care about the greatness of our culture as a fact, it simply, as a force, cares whether what is done is a successful fit to our situation. Learning culture can help. Adaptable culture can help. But in the end, it's our strategy that will harness the potential of our resources, what we have and who we are, to shape a better future.

Max Mckeown

..... this is a great article !! .... hey Ben Simonton ...... you got it !! .... I totally relate to all of your comments ..... from my experience ..... thanks for your insight :)

Linda Naperville, IL USA