What is more important for business success: an organization’s strategy or its culture? That question was posed by a member of an online discussion group of experienced executives, consultants, and coaches.
The responses were insightful: “Culture trumps strategy,” said one. “If there is a radical change in strategy without a corresponding change in culture, that strategy will not succeed.”
“Ultimately the right strategy is needed to compete, while the right culture is needed to succeed,” added another participant.
“Culture is more important,” commented a third. “Belief determines behavior, behavior determines results, and culture strongly influences both. If an elegant strategy runs up against a culture (the norms, beliefs, and behaviors of the employees) that can’t or won’t support it, that strategy is finished.”
I wholeheartedly agree with these responses. An organization’s culture—the sum total of its values, attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors—profoundly affects all of its activities and achievements. Organizations whose cultures prize excellence will tend to achieve excellence. Organizations with strong “can-do” attitudes will tend to set and achieve ambitious goals. On the other hand, organizational cultures devoid of positive values are almost certainly destined for mediocrity, or worse.
Growing a winning culture
I like having a nice garden. But frankly, I don’t enjoy doing the necessary work. But if I use the “stand-back-and-watch” approach, I know what will happen. No matter how fertile the ground, I’ll simply get weeds.
Companies are like that.
Healthy, productive organizational cultures don’t just happen. They need to be cultivated.
The culture of an organization is determined primarily by its core values. Organizations, like individuals, become what they value, respect, and believe.
Although I believe that honesty and integrity are fundamental values without which no others can subsist, I am not suggesting that there’s one set of core values that’s right for every organization, any more than there’s one right plant for every type of soil. Some plants, like azaleas, grow best in acidic soil. Others, like cacti, prefer sand. Just as the flowers, soil, lighting, and moisture must be compatible for a garden to flourish, the vision, values, culture, and strategy must be in harmony for an organization to succeed.
The most successful organizations deliberately cultivate winning cultures. They consciously choose to live by core values that promote successful attitudes and behaviors. Sowing and nurturing positive core values is an integral component of their organizational strategy.
Unfortunately, many organizations approach core values the way I approach gardening. I know I should take the time to determine the best soil, lighting, moisture, and nutrients. I know that if I select the wrong plants for my garden—or if I don’t take the time to till, fertilize, and cultivate the soil—I won’t get the desired results. But proper gardening requires time, which for me is in short supply. So I select flowers that look good in the nursery and hope they will grow where I plant them. A few months later, I usually end up replanting. Not very productive, I know, but I bet I’m not alone.
Many companies operate the same way. They rush their leadership team off to a strategic planning retreat where they identify a few core values they think would be good for their organization. Then they hurry back, “plant” those values, and hope they’ll take root. But simply posting your core values on a wall in hopes that people will live them doesn’t work. When organizational culture and core values are not integral components of your overall strategy, the results are always disappointing.
There are organizations that have been able to reap the benefits of living core values, while many others have failed. What are the keys to their success? Can we discern any general principles that have guided their actions? Yes, I believe we can. I submit that the following five principles are the keys to achieving organizational success through values-centered leadership:
Owning your values: Your personal and organizational values should be an expression of who you are at your core. If you’re not committed to them, no one else will be.
Defining core values: You must give meaning to your chosen values by creating clear definitions, so everyone concerned understands what behaviors they advocate and forbid.
Sharing core values: You need to communicate your core values constantly and consistently, so that everyone in the organization understands and owns them.
Institutionalizing core values: You must weave your values into the fabric of your organization’s policies, processes, and procedures so they influence all actions and decisions.
Honoring core values: You must regard your company’s core values as non-negotiable, or they will become inconsequential. Living core values is a self-reinforcing process. Coming full circle, honoring values always increases ownership.
The Value of Core Values
Although I firmly believe that living core values promotes maximum business success—and my definition of business success includes profitability—I’ve observed that organizations that benefit most from living their core values tend to define success in light of their values. They’re working for rewards that are substantially greater than profitability alone.
I encourage you to find out for yourself how valuable core values can be. I believe your company will be more prosperous in tangible terms. But even more important, I believe you will grow to appreciate that the greatest value of core values is ultimately in the values themselves.