Culture still eats strategy every time

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By Sairah Ashman

We’ve had the incredible privilege of working with many great businesses and brands over the years.  And some outstanding leaders too.  But not all of them have been successful.  Or at least, not as successful as I imagined they would or should be.

When I explore why, I find myself returning to the question of culture.  It’s obvious that a leadership team should invest time, energy and money in developing a clear well thought through strategy.  It’s a no brainer that some kind of operating plan will then be needed to deliver successfully.  And of course some carefully crafted measures are then required to signal priorities, assess progress and course correct.  At some point along the way the question of how to motivate, inspire or simply communicate to ‘the troops’ comes up.  This is usually when the wheels come off.

Any leader or business thinking about involving their people this far down the line is in for a rough ride.  Creating the ideal conditions for your people to thrive, equipping them to make the many decisions needed daily to deliver effectively and recognizing their contribution in producing a positive outcome isn’t an after thought once your strategy is set.  It’s the thing that will determine your success.

If strategy is primarily a cerebral exercise, then culture is largely an emotional one.  Strategy is about decisions and directed action, culture is about behavior and choice.  You may have the power to tell me what to do, but you certainly don’t have the power to tell me how to feel about it.  And it’s how I feel that will determine how I perform and what my impact will be.  To ignore how strategy and culture live together and inform one another lies somewhere between corporate ignorance and suicide.

So what makes a great culture?  In truth, there is no universally ‘right’ or ‘best’ culture for an organization.  It’s a question of creating a culture appropriate for your purpose and business environment.  Richard Branson does a great job setting the context for Virgin Atlantic.  Michael O’Leary does the same for Ryanair.  It’s unlikely you’ll ever confuse the two in terms of focus, spirit, ethos or operating practices.  But they’re both successful.

Most folks would rather work for Virgin than Ryanair of course.  And it’s clear that businesses with a purpose beyond profit generally pay more attention to how they treat their people, partners and customers.  They generally outperform the market and their competition over the long term too.  Just ask Jim Collins, he researches and writes about it – a lot.

By design and default we’ve created a very strong and positive culture at Wolff Olins.  Over the years we’ve evolved our strategy, reorganized ourselves many times, changed leadership and tinkered with our business model.  But it’s only when we’ve unknowingly and gently drifted from our core purpose and values that we’ve ever felt unsettled and unsure of ourselves, prompting the need to refocus and rebalance.

At Wolff Olins our business is very much our people.  I think we all get, in a very literal sense, that what we deliver is a direct consequence of how we feel.  If the right conditions are in place for all of us to treat each other well and thrive, then so does our work and our business too. 

Over the years Wolff Olins has welcomed many wonderful newcomers with a friendly “we don’t expect much from you while you’re here, just that you do the best work of your lives”.  The job of leadership around the place has always been to make sure we get what we need to do so and enjoy it.

With this in mind I’d encourage any business to take a very upfront people centred approach to strategy development and to perhaps consider the following:

Hire wonderful people…better to have 100% of the right attitude and 70% of the right skills.  You can only train for one of these.

Focus and liberate…be disciplined and explicit in your goals and boundary setting, then encourage everyone to be experimental and individual.  Best of all give everyone the tools and resources to be successful.

What gets measured gets managed…pick your metrics carefully and ensure you understand their cause and effect.  Make one of them to listen very carefully to your people and customers – they’ll tell you everything you need to know to be a success.

Practice what you preach…whatever your culture, this is where the rubber hits the road.  We learn by sight, experience and action.  Make what you do and how you conduct yourself as a business matter.

Pay attention to what you celebrate…everyone else will and it makes crystal clear what you believe in, reward and stand for as a business.

And if you’re wondering why your strategy isn’t working then it’s probably time to ask your people where you’re going wrong.  Better still, make them part of creating the answer.

Sairah Ashman is COO of Wolff Olins. 

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