How culture fuels (or kills) strategy
Recently I was talking with a friend, Lana, about a company she used to work for. A company that, on paper, was a perfect fit for her.
For starters, the company was fast growing company and encouraged an entrepreneurial spirit. Lana has always had a strong background in sales, and working for an organization that encouraged out of the box thinking and that rewarded risk taking was exactly the type of environment she thrived in.
Most companies don’t encourage their employees to take risks, and when they do (and at times, fail) the consequences can be great. As a result, most employees don’t put themselves out there — and their organizations don’t expand.
Not so at this company. Indeed, quite the opposite. The trust that Lana was afforded in developing new business, with such little oversight by her superior, was huge. And it was because that trust was so huge, in part, that she was naturally motivated to continue delivering to this company.
Most organizations don’t operate this way, though. Most organizations don’t empower their employees with this level of trust. And because they don’t feel trusted, employees typically won’t go the extra mile for the places they work for. Again, not true at this company. They knew, perhaps intuitively, that if they hired people based on a set of values, coupled with a strong skill set, their business would grow.
The other thing that was so great about this organization was how clearly they articulated their purpose. More than just being written in big orange colours in the main room, this company’s “why” was felt by everyone who worked there. According to Lana, everyone at the company believed that what we were doing was important to the world, and that each of their unique skills was being lent to something larger than us them as individuals.
This cannot be understated.
That each of the employees felt that they were working collectively towards something greater than them as individuals bound them together, certainly. But more importantly, it gave them each as individuals the meaning that they all needed to come to work inspired. Their jobs mattered, however small the contribution may appear, because with their small actions, they were positively changing the world.
There was one thing, however, that prevented this organization from succeeding in the marketplace. And, not surprisingly, the motivation for this blog.
As terrific as this organization was — allowing its employees a sense of autonomy and uniting its workers with a shared sense of purpose — what ultimately prohibited this organization from greatness was its inability to do one thing: relate to its employees.
Certainly staff developed strong relationships amongst themselves, but the relationships between staff and senior management were perpetually tenuous. A general feeling amongst staff existed that who they were, and what they did, was not valued.
When serious allegations of sexual harassment and bullying by one of the newly hired VPs were brought to the CEOs attention, instead of valuing his employees and his relationships with them, he decided to turn a blind eye to the threatening behaviour. This new VP had considerable strategic experience that would have likely guided the organization to future success. And in the CEOs mind, that trumped the employee’s relational discomfort.
As the former President of Ford, Mark Fields once said, “organizational culture eats strategy for breakfast, lunch, and dinner.” And man, he was right! You can develop the best strategy in the world, and hire the best VP to execute it, but if your employees don’t have relational buy in, expect your strategy to go right out the window.
Despite their pleas to common sense and decency, the CEO refused to make his employees feel important nor valued. Instead, he commenced on a wave of mass layoffs, which ultimately cleansed the organization of almost everyone that made claims against the new VP. What was once a vibrant company, propelled forward by shared sense of purpose and autonomy, was thwarted by its inability to make its employees feel connected to their superiors.
Not surprisingly, this company today has yet to reach its potential. And perhaps even more telling, is that its culture has become its brand. Despite its compelling mission statement and desire to impact the world, today it is known in the community as being an organization that mistreats its employees.
This is not just a brand failure, but a leadership one. And ultimately, a failure that will prohibit the company from ever succeeding at the scale that it could.
What do instead
According to behavioural scientists Edward Deci and Richard Ryan, organizations must provide their employees 3 ingredients so as to create organizations where people are intrinsically motivated to do work. In the end, this is what every organization should aim for, as forcing anyone or “stick and carroting” them to work is bound to fail.
Autonomy is defined as freedom of choice. Autonomy is high when individuals feel they are engaging in things because they choose to do so, not because they feel obliged or forced to do it. In the case of Lana, she was afforded a large degree of autonomy in deciding how to pursue new business leads. And as a result of this confidence in her, Lana brought millions of dollars of new business opportunities to the organization
In order to fully give to an organization, employees must believe in why the company exists and how their particular skills can advance their company’s cause. Lana felt truly at home at the company in this article because what she was good at — business development — was not only a needed talent, but one that she was able to develop and perfect for a cause that she believed in.
At work and in life, we all want to feel like we are connected. More importantly, we need to feel that who we are is valued, honoured, and respected by the people we work with. This seems excruciatingly obvious, but it proves — time and time again — to be one of the hardest things to do. Not just at work, but in life. Humans have an incredible ability to be tremendously empathetic, and also overwhelmingly protectionist. And when we are the latter, we have a very hard time seeing the importance in others. Such was the case with Lana at her former employer. Instead of seeing the humanity in his workplace, the CEO decided to pursue interests that isolated his team.
For more information on how to create workplaces that inspire, so that ultimately your organization can maximize its time, teams, and profits, please feel free to drop me a line at: