First a quote: “Culture eats strategy for breakfast” ― attributed to Peter Drucker
While many people attribute the quote above to Peter Drucker, it should be noted the phrase does not seem to appear in any of Drucker’s 39 published books on management theory. Regardless of its origin, anyone who has ever attempted a large-scale change initiative knows there is at least some truth in the statement.
The implied message is that a company’s culture is more important to the organization’s success than some grand strategy. Bottom line, it doesn’t matter how wonderful your strategy is if your existing organizational culture won’t support it; or worse yet, attacks the strategy like the human body attacks an infection. And yet, so few leaders measure, monitor or intentionally shape the culture of their department, function or organization. Why? I suspect, in part, because culture seems so squishy. It is perceived by many as “soft stuff”. Or, leaders assume, “the culture is what it is,” and can’t be measured, shaped, changed or reinforced. Or perhaps, they’re just too busy fighting the fires of the day to care. That is a mistake.
You have heard me say this before, “the soft stuff, is the hard part” when it comes to leadership responsibilities. Organizational culture is seen by most as a “soft stuff” challenge. I’m a believer, when it comes to organizational norms, behaviors, actions and results, culture is a stronger force, than strategy, policies, management edicts and glitzy marking campaigns. Let me use a simple example.
Envision a local highway, interstate or thoroughfare near your home or office during a “non-rush hour time of day.” Have a road in mind? Now, let me ask you two questions. First; “What is the posted speed limit on that road?” And second; “How fast do most people drive on that same road?” For this discussion, let’s assume you have envisioned a road with a posted speed limit of 65 as pictured above. And now, what is your answer to the second question; “How fast do people drive on that same road?”
I have asked workshop participants these same two questions for years. Most people answer the second question with something like, “You’re safe up to five or ten miles over the speed limit.” What I find interesting; they’re not talking about their physical safety here; they’re talking about “safe” from not getting a speeding ticket from an officer of the law.
Here is the point, the law says, “Thou shalt not drive faster than 65 miles per hour on this section of road.” The sign is not a suggestion; nor does it say 65ish, or 65 + 10. It says the speed limit is 65! And yet, our culture seems to say, “It is OK to drive five to ten miles an hour over the speed limit.” Repeating, culture matters because it controls human behavior, with more effectiveness, than any policy, procedure or management edict ever will.
This same phenomenon is at play in every division, function and department in every company around the world. We put up posters in our breakrooms announcing: (pick your favorite)
- Customers are #1
- Employees are our greatest asset
- We value diversity
- Quality First
- We value your ideas
- We start meetings on time
And then, there is what culture dictates, what actually happens on the shop floor, in stores, offices, in the field or around the water cooler. What behaviors are rewarded, and which are punished? What do we avoid or when to do we look the other way? What cultural norms are dictating behaviors and actions, almost like magic, in your business unit?
As most of you know, I fly too many miles on too many airplanes. I meet a lot of flight attendants. I’m also more than just a casual observer around the topic of customer service. There is a noticeable difference in service levels between airlines. If you fly much, you know what I’m talking about.
There is a reason why Southwest airlines is the most financially successful airline ever, this year posting it 46th consecutive year of profitability. They had a net income of $2.5 billion from annual revenue of nearly $22 billion this year. By the way, they also returned $544 million to their employees under the company’s profit-sharing plan. They treat their people like owners of the business, not employees.
“Customers will never love a company… until the employees love it first.”
– Simon Sinek, author
My experience is that Southwest Airline flight attendants are among the friendliest people in the industry. They tend to be caring, fun-loving, often funny, people who genuinely love their jobs. (By the way, if you haven’t noticed, their culture is not afraid to use the word “love” in any of their communication.) These behaviors aren’t managed by policy or edict. They are discretionary behaviors encouraged and rewarded by a supportive organizational culture. Southwest Airline’s organizational culture is not an accident. It has been created, crafted and manicured intentionally, and by design over many years. It didn’t “just happen”.
How about the culture you lead? Have you given it the attention it deserves? These are important questions because, you are shaping your team’s culture, either accidently by happenstance, or intentionally by design. Culture matters! Your level of success depends upon the culture you are creating by your everyday actions and decisions. Be intentional! If you haven’t done so yet, start today!
Bonus Quote: “There’s no magic formula for great company culture. The key is just to treat your staff how you would like to be treated.” – Richard Branson, Founder, Virgin Group
How will you lead differently, or better this week?
Have a great week!
“Expanding Your Capacity for Success”