Culture doesn’t eat strategy for breakfast

….but it will regularly feast on weak leadership and incoherent strategy.

At the risk of upsetting all the Drucker fans out there, “culture eats strategy for breakfast”, is probably the most misquoted and misunderstood of Drucker’s maxims. While this idiom is certainly accredited to him, it was actually first coined by Ford’s Mark Fields who later attributed it to Peter Drucker. Nonetheless, leadership and strategy pundits love to sprinkle this quote like chicken feed across social media channels. It is also an anthem for those who are opponents of corporate strategies, or institutional transformation.

 Peter Drucker often argued that a company’s culture would trump any attempt to create a strategy that was incompatible with its culture. The actual quote in question is,

“Company cultures are like country cultures. Never try to change one. Try, instead, to work with what you’ve got.”

Certainly, there’s a fundamental link between leadership, culture and strategy and history is replete with examples where proactive leadership, coupled with sound strategy created conditions that resulted in cultural change (the simple fact that you are reading this article on your iPhone should be proof enough). Alternatively, as Drucker aptly points out, history is also replete with similar examples where grand strategies have ground to a halt because leadership articulated strategies that ignored the cultural impact, or grossly underestimated the degree of cultural change required.

“If the leadership is weak, or their expression of strategy is incoherent, then culture has an all-you-can-eat buffet.”

 Strategy doesn’t exist as a sole entity. It is an expression of leadership’s higher intent and the ways and means of getting there. So if culture eats anything, it’s dining on that expression of leadership. Remember, there are many elements to creating & executing a coherent strategy. Leadership is Number 1. Everything else is Number 2. If the leadership is weak, or their expression of strategy is incoherent, then culture has an all-you-can-eat buffet.

Getting back to Drucker’s original posit of, “Never try to change one”; there’s a great deal of truth to that. To suggest that leaders can directly change culture takes considerable hubris. However, leaders can shape culture by creating conditions to affect coherent change…. which is the whole raison d’être behind strategy. However, instead of describing how you are going to change culture, concentrate on creating conditions that will promote positive change and reinforce cultural support. You can’t change culture, but effective and inspirational leaders can create the strategic conditions to enable positive cultural change. You can create the path, but it has be a path that people want take because it’s in their interests to do so.

“If you’re a CEO and you are not enamored with your corporate culture … you may want to take a long glance in the mirror.”

 Finally, with respect to Drucker’s, “Try, instead, to work with what you’ve got”; this is probably the greatest truism and one that should inspire a little introspection. If you’re one of those CEOs who believe that your culture is incapable of accepting change, you might have a little naval gazing to do. By way of a reminder for corporate leadership, what exactly is your organizational or institutional culture? Frankly, it’s the sum total of the following three things:

  1. The leadership style, tenor, ethos and values that your company practices;
  2. The corporate processes that your employees use and that your management enables; and
  3. The structures that your employees operate in.

 …, if you’re a CEO and you are not enamored with your corporate culture, or if you believe your culture will be resistant to change initiatives, you may want to take a long glance in the mirror. You created the conditions for that culture to flourish. On the plus side, you’ve got 3 key areas for your strategy where you can create the conditions for culture to start taking a positive shift.

“Your corporate culture is not the bogeyman.”

 In summary, please stop using culture as your whipping boy for incoherent, or poorly communicated strategy. Your corporate culture is not the bogeyman. It’s an important facet of any strategy and you ignore it at your own peril …..but it’s not an insurmountable obstacle. However, if you firmly believe that your culture is a brick wall, just remember that you had a role in building it.

This  post Culture doesn’t eat strategy for breakfast originally appeared on Linkedin.

Renee Sanders is a PhD candidate in business at Capella University, where her specialization is strategy and innovation. Renee holds an BBA and MBA from the University of Maryland University College. Renee currently works in for a defense contractor as the Director of Strategic Pricing and Price to Win.

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