How to Balance Strategy’s Ying with Culture’s Yang


We’ve talked about planning and the importance of setting strategy. We’ve talked about how collaborative diplomats make better strategic leaders today than authoritarian autocrats. But what we haven’t explored in depth yet is a third crucial block when building successful companies: culture.

Strategy is futile if the corporate culture doesn’t support it. That sounds simple enough, doesn’t it? Believe me, it’s not. Strategy is practical, logical and rational, whereas culture is organic, unpredictable and emotional, which means balancing strategy’s ying with culture’s yang can be a huge challenge.

A good way to think of strategy and culture’s interdependency is to imagine planting a seed in soil. The seed contains the “strategy” – the DNA roadmap for growth – but the soil creates the “cultural” conditions, which will ultimately determine whether that seed will flourish or wither. Just as a gardener can take actions to improve the soil quality in order that the seed blooms, so too can business managers take specific actions when it comes to corporate culture.

For example:

1) Leaders can role model culture.

You can’t, for instance, expect a culture of collaboration to flourish if senior management is inaccessible, tucked away in separate closed-off offices, and not visibly talking to colleagues throughout the organisation. When it comes to corporate culture, it doesn’t matter how many internal newsletters you send out telling employees that “collaboration” is a key company value and strategic target – actions speak louder than words.

2) View middle management as your culture-drivers.

Often the importance of middle management in culture is overlooked, but they are the ones that can build momentum around culture because they tend to be more visible and hands-on than senior leaders. If you inspire them, empower them and ensure they are clear on the corporate vision and their part in contributing to it, they can fertilize the corporate climate so it’s conducive to growth. If you fail to do this middle managers can, by contrast, become like slugs ruining the corporate crop.

3) Put processes in place so all your employees are empowered to “live” your values.

For example, if you want to create an “agile” culture, then you have to enable it by using technology that allows people to work flexibly, to make decisions and to react quickly. If there are barriers to taking these actions, then cultural conditions stop supporting strategy, and therefore, growth. Worse still, the conditions could turn toxic and actively impede long-term growth.

4) Persevere.

Think back to our gardener analogy. A seed doesn’t grow from a one-off watering; it requires consistent feeding, watering and sunlight so the soil conditions are optimised. Similarly, positive corporate culture needs constant attention and nourishing throughout the different layers of the organisation. Approaching culture as a “tickbox” exercise will mean your strategic vision is doomed for failure or, at the very least, stunted growth.