Strategy and Culture
I recently read an article attributing Peter Drucker with coining the phrase “Culture Eats Strategy for Breakfast”. Upon some informal research, I found the quote was contested by different commenters on which is more important – Strategy or Culture. Some argued culture has to be designed to support strategy, while others said culture always trumps strategy. The saying seems designed more for personal interpretation by the reader than a concise business principle. While the quote seems to be fodder for management articles, it prompted me to think about culture from my professional experience in both industry and consulting roles. I fall on the side of culture as more important. A great business strategy can overcome cultural problems, but only in the short run. And a great culture is not only hard to find but extremely difficult to maintain over time.
Why is Culture Important
While strategy is about objectives and goals, culture is about employee behavior. Culture is the DNA of the company and what employees do. Culture guides employee decisions on interactions with both clients and with coworkers. It is not a poster on the wall or corporate slogan. Culture cannot be faked – employees will pick up on a broken culture and reject it.
What are some of the benefits of a strong culture?
- Major performance differentiator
- Increases employee engagement and satisfaction
- Ensures consistent client experience
- Is critical to attracting and retaining talent over time
- Unites employees in common goals
- Provides consistency of delivery and experience across strategy shifts
Culture in Practice
In an early engagement with SEI, I experienced the power of our culture first hand. I was tasked with completing an application certification process on a tight timeline. The client, in a highly regulated industry, required a justifiably onerous process to ensure compliance with industry and governmental regulations. The task required documentation, coordination, and approval across more than a dozen organizational units from branding to enterprise security. A colleague, who previously managed the application certification process, approached me to help. He provided me project documentation and guidance on the groups to coordinate with first to ensure the application would be certified in time for deployment. He did not manage the account and there was no bonus attached to the project delivery. He helped me because it was what we do. It was a demonstration of our culture in action.
My experience is neither unique nor rare. I’ve often witnessed, both at the client and SEI staff meetings, colleagues describing a challenge or encountering an unfamiliar situation. The other consultants, varying across different projects, business domains, skillsets, and even SEI offices, are not detached spectators of the problem. Each consultant listens intently and readily offers guidance, manpower, and support to try to solve “our” problem, not just “their” problem. Our culture is built on the foundation that the organization’s success is directly attributed to each individual consultant’s success.
Great culture is hard to find …and more difficult to maintain
SEI was founded on the core values of performance excellence, employee participation, integrity, and collaboration. While these ideals are not groundbreaking or unique, the fact that SEI has maintained core values across more than twenty years is unique. Our values are embedded in how we hire, deliver to our clients, and how we interact with our peers. It’s what we do to maintain this culture.
At SEI, Culture is our Strategy.