Culture Eats Strategy for Breakfast

First coined by management guru Peter Drucker, the iconic phrase “culture eats strategy for breakfast” is a subtle but profoundly deep reminder that there is more to building a business than just developing a superior strategy and tactically executing that strategy.

Over the past few years, I have interacted with many organizations that have experienced significant financial growth based on a strong strategy and exceptional tactical execution. They had a great idea, they outsmarted their competition, they were relentless and driven, and they created an organization that, by many metrics, is very successful. However, despite creating strong, financially viable companies, many leaders find themselves dealing with some significant challenges in taking their company to the next level. They find their organizations complacent and stagnant, while leadership is left wondering what happened to the lean, innovative, driven company they thought they were building.

Turns out, this feeling of “we don’t know who we are and what we stand for as a group” is more common than you might expect, even among healthy and profitable companies. Building a company, not unlike building a family, is hard work. There are tasks to be done, big issues that need to be addressed, things that can consume a leader’s time and attention. Often times, when leaders come up for air after years of taking care of the “what” and “how” of the day-to-day operations required to build their company, they find that they have neglected to sufficiently invest in “who they are” and have lost their organizational identity. This is not significantly different from the plight of many couples who start off to build a family with all the right intentions, but amidst the chaos of raising kids and taking care of the business of life, realize that they have become consumed with “what they are doing” and “how they are doing it” and have forgotten “who they are” as a family.

When we look out on the business landscape at the most iconic corporations of our time, it becomes obvious: so many of the best and most respected, organizations have something unique about them, transcending beyond simply having a superior business strategy. There is something about them that drives them from the inside. And when we peel back the layers of these organizations to identify what makes them tick, what we often find at the core is a common set of values, shared experiences and strongly held beliefs about who that organization is, and who they are striving to become. From Apple to Chick-fil-a, Zappos to Warby Parker, each of these organizations not only have superior strategy and tactical execution, but they also have a cultural core that is strong and deep. In fact, it is not only having a corporate culture, but ensuring that the culture is the driver of the strategy and then the strategy that drives the tactics.

It is important for business leaders to recognize that our organizations should not simply be focused on what we do and how we do it, but that we should first focus on WHO WE ARE. It is that unifying identity of “who we are” (culture) that drives “what we do” (strategy), and then “what we do” drives “how we do it” (tactics).

Building a strong organizational culture is not an easy task. It takes time, energy, and intentional effort, but it is a crucial part of building an organization with significance and legacy. If we are committed to leading an organization with vision and meaning at its core, with values that the employees believe and embrace, that builds employees not just into better workers, but also into better people, then it is the work of culture building that must be done.

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