It turns out there’s something much more important.
Let’s start by acknowledging the essential nature of strategy to the success of any venture, old or new, commercial or non-profit. Strategy is the grand plan, how your solutions fit with the problems they’re intended to solve, your path to market, your role in the competitive landscape, and the relationship you seek with customers. Important? Heck, yes. We built the name of our company around that word.
Too many sales organizations don’t have a strategy, don’t believe their strategy, don’t understand their strategy, and/or don’t follow their strategy. Their daily activities are a mish-mash of ill-fitting, often contradictory, tactics, programs, projects, and promotions—Band-Aids to cover the gaping hole where strategy is supposed to be. They create a “the hurrier I go, the behinder I get” environment that wears everyone out and leaves the organization well short of its dream, its potential, even its short-term goals, quotas, and budgets. No wonder Sun-Tzu, writing 3,000 years ago in The Art of War, called tactics without strategy “the noise before defeat.”
With that declaration of the importance of strategy, we can consider this five-word gem from Peter Drucker, the greatest management thinker of all time:
“Culture eats strategy for breakfast.”
Boom! If culture is that much more important than strategy, we’d better make sure we understand it.
Strategy is intention and culture is habit, according to Helsinki-based strategy and branding consultant Tobias Dahlberg. That simple statement helps us understand just why and how culture eats strategy for breakfast. Realizing intentions requires great corporate effort, focus, coordination, conversation, tough decisions, astute resource allocation, measurement, accountability, mid-course correction, and more.
In contrast, habit delivers its benefits effortlessly. Pay no attention at all, and habit has your back.
Wait. Habit is powerful, yes, but does it always have your back? Are its deliveries always beneficial? Of course not. Good habits have immensely useful impacts, but bad habits are often destructive. This is just as true at the corporate level as it is at the person level. If a business wants a healthy culture, one that puts the wind at its back instead of in its face, it needs to have plenty of good habits and few if any bad ones.
Culture is Habit, and Habit is People
Where does a company get good habits? Only one place. Its people. It starts at the top. If C-suite leaders don’t have good habits, there’s no chance the organization will. If they do, there’s no assurance the broader organization will, but the potential is there.
By the time we’re adults, and often much earlier, our habits are pretty well-ingrained. Some can be modified or replaced, but most are set for life. These habits reflect our values and attitudes, our mental wiring, our sources of enjoyment and satisfaction, and the behaviors that have and have not worked for us before. More simply, habit is how people think and act when they’re not paying special attention to how they’re thinking and acting.
Given how ingrained our habits and behaviors are, how difficult—nearly impossible—it is to change people, having an organization full of people with the right habits is almost entirely about selection (not training or supervising). There’s a word that wraps together all those values, habits, behaviors, and mental wiring. That word is talent.
The Talents of a Company's People Produce Its Culture
Selecting people with the right talent for the job and for the organization buys you those good habits. A staff full of good habits produces a company with good habits. Your corporate culture, whether strong or weak, good or ill, simply reflects the kind of talent you’ve hired, retained, and advanced.
Once you have enough people (half a dozen is usually enough) to have a corporate culture, a set of habits followed by most staff, that culture then takes on a life of its own. It won’t change (without extensive and rapid re-staffing). When it’s a positive corporate culture, it also helps attract like-minded (like-talented) people in a virtuous cycle.
Corporate culture is thus the organizational equivalent of talent. When people assign adjectives to describe the culture of this company or that, it is very much like the adjectives any of us would use to describe people we know—descriptors of their most consistent behaviors. The talents of individuals produce the corporate culture, and then that culture becomes the organization’s talent.
You still need strategy to succeed in this world. But if you haven’t got the culture (the people) right, cancel that strategy planning session. Because your culture will eat for breakfast whatever strategy you devise.