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Contributed by
Lal Tawney
Lal is a strategy specialist and transformation expert with vast experience across the education and financial services sector. His recent projects cover customer journey design, operating model design, and organisational digital enablement.
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Culture Eats Strategy for Breakfast


“Culture eats strategy for breakfast” is a famous quote from legendary management guru and writer Peter Drucker. This clearly positions culture as more important than strategy. In my view and my experience, having a clear, strong strategy is fundamental for all organisations. However, having an appropriate culture is a surer route to success. So on the flip side, great strategies can be resisted by strong cultures.

So What Is Culture?

Culture is not as easy to define in the same way that strategy can be defined. Organisational culture covers a number of points including:

  • The way things get done around here
  • What behaviours are important or highly rated
  • How do colleagues treat each other
  • What’s allowed and what’s not allowed.

Culture is part of the fabric of the organisation.

I’ve worked for a number of corporate organisations and I had two very simple reasons for understanding the culture:

  • How do I get things done? (Meeting the organisations aims)
  • How do I get ahead? (Meeting my personal aims)

For those who want to understand culture in more detail, Johnson and Scholes identified a number of linked elements that make up culture, but interestingly, they didn’t specify any one gold standard.

Where Does Culture Come From?

The Leaders.

Leaders are role models. Leaders can be the both the people in positions of leadership or authority, but can also be the people with “personality power” i.e. the informal leaders. Culture is established through the examples set by these leaders.

Recently, Ingvar Kampard the founder of Ikea died. He once said about Ikea “If we want to be cost-conscious, we should do it, not just talk about how cost-conscious we are.” Kamprad was one of the world’s wealthiest people. But instead of a chauffeur-driven limo, he drove an old Volvo and whenever he travelled by plane, even long haul, it was in economy. Rather than travelling by taxi, he was known to use Stockholm’s subway and public buses to take advantage of his pensioner’s discount. He was key in setting the culture at IKEA.

Apple’s organisational culture involves a policy of selecting only the best of the best workers. Steve Jobs was known to readily fire employees who did not meet his expectations. This tradition in Apple’s organizational culture continues under Tim Cook. Excellence is emphasised as a critical success factor in the business, especially in product design and development.

There are also numerous examples where leaders have allowed the culture to “go bad”. The “emissionsgate” or “dieselgate” where Volkswagen had intentionally programmed turbocharged direct injection (TDI) diesel engines to activate their emissions controls only during laboratory emissions testing.

How Do We Recruit With Regard To Culture?

Every recruiter will produce a job description with requirements for skills and experience. As important, is how does the new recruit need to fit with regard to the existing culture? There are two ends of a continuum here from “fit with existing culture” to “disrupt the existing culture”.

So when hiring, being clear on how the new recruit “fits” is as important as the skills and expertise required.

Many retail stores will look for a fit with culture. Pret A Manger is absolutely clear about its store staff fitting in with the existing culture.

The three core behaviors are

  • Passion
  • Clear Talking
  • Team Working

Their training booklet includes three columns headed ‘Don’t want to see’, ‘Want to see’ and ‘Pret Perfect!’. To ensure “fit”, all candidates (for any position within Pret) are sent to work on the shop floor for a day. If the candidate is applying for a position in a shop, then the team who works there gets a say on whether said candidate will fit in with the team there.

It is not surprising that most people have a natural tendency to want to hire like-minded people for their organisations. However, at the other end of the continuum, sometimes a “change agent” or “disruptor” is needed to move the organisation forward.

In Summary

Strategy and culture need to be work together and need to be aligned – so you have to consider how you leverage your cultural strengths to enable to make your strategy happen. Leaders at all levels have a role in defining the organisational culture, and when recruiting the killer question is “how does the new recruit need to fit with regard to the existing culture?”

– Lal