Culture Still Eats Strategy for Breakfast, but Data is the Answer.


Time and time again, I have had the opportunity to observe how organizations operate, viewing firsthand high-performing cultures where extraordinary things are accomplished on a daily basis. These are places where people are aligned and unified through unique social contracts.

Companies with a weak or broken culture struggle harder and are negatively affected by the deficit. This demonstrates what most leaders know or are learning: Culture is today’s major performance differentiator.

Culture creates the foundation for strategy and will either be a company’s greatest asset or largest liability. While culture has many aspects and manifestations, its core should include a clear sense of purpose and shared values that guide decision making across the company.

When leaders keep their businesses aligned with their values, they can attract talented people and inspire employees to work hard and drive the company forward. When employees see that everyone is held accountable to the same vision, it creates internal cohesion that can make a company hum with productivity.

By altering and strengthening culture, an organization can thrive. However, the very suggestion of culture change can make people within organizations uncomfortable because it is rarely an easy clear-cut process.

This begs the questions: How can leaders understand what aspects of the culture to actually change and what levers to pull to create the health and performance they seek?

Here are the top five steps leaders need to take to change an organization’s culture.

  1. Use data to not only reflect but to prescribe exactly where you should focus. Cultural change must begin with data-driven reflection on how culture is evolving and impacting the business, and continue with predictive analytics to determine which cultural interventions will most move the needle on performance.
  2. Articulate the values. The business leader needs to do the legwork to think through what he or she wants people to experience and how values will be translated into daily decision making. Leaders should always communicate their vision, values, and desired behaviors more than they think is necessary.
  3. Model the behaviors. After reflecting on the data and intentionally considering the desired values, leaders must explicitly and blatantly model the behaviors they would like to see on a daily basis.
  4. Maintain a meaningful two-way dialogue. Once the behaviors have been modeled, leaders should regularly engage in honest and open dialogue with their entire organization to gain constructive feedback and more context on employees’ daily lived experiences and how well those match up with the organization’s desired culture and values.
  5. Monitor progress and declare success along the way. Change efforts will rapidly lose momentum if continuous progress isn’t demonstrated—and it is demonstrated through measurement. As a leader, be fearless about gathering the data needed to show small success and to identify the next right step. Just like you wouldn’t set a revenue goal and stop measuring revenue, you shouldn’t set a cultural goal and stop measuring culture. Activating culture change takes time. Show your team continuously that you are moving in the right direction.

Changing a company’s culture is difficult, but not impossible. It requires engagement at every level of the organization. When the restart button needs to be pushed on company culture, time must be taken to address the challenges that executive staff, board members and employees face. However, the dividends of such an investment are worth it, as culture is essential to the success of your organization.

So, does culture really eat strategy for breakfast? The answer is yes. And to strengthen a company’s culture, get ready for a time of data-driven reflection, value-articulation, behavior-setting, meaningful dialogue, and celebrating (small) successes.