Leadership Eats Culture

By Bryan Adkins Ed.D., CEO, Denison Consulting

It wasn’t long after starting my career in the corporate culture arena that I came across the quote “Culture Eats Strategy.” It has been attributed to a few people, most often to Peter Drucker. Regardless of its origin, the quote is one that resonates with many. We’ve witnessed many an organization where the strategies were sound, yet ultimately failed as a result of a culture that sabotaged (either explicitly or implicitly) the execution.

Employees from every level and in any part of an organization can play the role of saboteur. Yet no one is so well-positioned to undermine the efforts of the organization than those in leadership roles. Yes, culture does eat strategy. However, leadership eats culture. As our founder, Dan Denison, noted in the book, “Leading Culture Change in Global Organizations”: “It is very tempting to sit at the top of a successful global corporation and contemplate your strategic options. But it is equally humbling to listen to the office chatter on the front line and realize how little impact your most profound strategic insights have on the day-to-day actions of your people.”

Among the many insights that we often discover when doing our culture work are the differing culture perceptions based on level, region/location and function. The lack of alignment across an organization becomes quite clear.

It is also quite common to be looking at a range of culture profiles and have people say things like, “Oh, no surprise there… that’s Cindy’s group” or “That region’s results make sense. They’ve struggled under Steve’s leadership.” Intuitively, they are making a connection between a leader and the culture that leader oversees.

leader-4

Who is Responsible?

Let me clarify that I absolutely believe that all members of an organization should own the culture in which they operate. Viewing the culture as someone else’s responsibility is fraught with implications, including unrealistic expectations of others, ambivalence towards the importance of the work environment, and the adoption of a victim mentality. Culture is about the collective, not the individual. One person does not a culture make, though as noted earlier, leaders are uniquely positioned to have a disproportionate impact on the way things get done in an organization.

Leaders play a critical role in setting priorities and determining where employees focus their efforts. They are in a position to help employees understand why those are the priorities. Resource allocation, budgets, hiring and firing, investments…leaders can and usually do influence all of these decisions. Leaders also react to successful initiatives as well as problems and mistakes. Those reactions send explicit messages, not only about what is working well, but also how to respond to successes and failures.

How do Leaders undermine the Culture?

There are countless ways in which a leader can undermine a culture. Speak skeptically about a strategy and employees may question just how serious the strategy is or how committed is the leadership. Behave in ways that are in clear violation of the core values – what are supposed to be the non-negotiables – and the values become, well, valueless. Disparage the customer and before you know it the customer is viewed as an inconvenience. Berate the employee who brings forth new ideas and challenges the status quo and “change” becomes a dirty word. React to a mistake by first asking, “Who is to blame?” vs. “What can we learn?” and fear becomes a dominant force.

“Speak skeptically about a strategy and employees may question just how serious the strategy is or how committed is the leadership.”

Leadership through
a Culture lens

At Denison, we look at leadership through a culture lens. Our research has shown how culture impacts organizational performance across many critical metrics. Given the consequential impact of culture, it seems only logical that culture awareness and culture management should become a core competency of every leader and manager. In recent years, the topic of culture is at the top of nearly every list of executive concerns. So how do you make culture something that every leader can be aware of and take responsibility for?

Another Peter Drucker quote is: “You can’t manage what you can’t measure.” The assessment of both the organization and leaders through a high-performance culture lens is a powerful force for change. An organizational culture assessment allows you to see just how clear and aligned the workforce is and to parse that information across functions, levels and locations to identify where disconnects might exist.

Leadership 360 feedback, using a culture lens, allows every leader to see how well they are creating clarity and alignment among their key stakeholder groups. The very act of measuring leadership using a culture model sends a very powerful message to leaders and managers. It says that culture is important and that you have an obligation as a leader to understand and manage your impact on the culture.

leader-2

Make Culture a Leadership Priority

If culture understanding and management is a priority for your organization,
start by asking yourself the following questions:

How clear is our current culture? Do we know if our culture is a business driver or a barrier to performance?

Do we have established values and leadership principles?

Are people held accountable for behaving in accordance with those values and principles?

Is culture understanding and management an explicit expectation for leaders and managers?

How do leaders understand the impact they are having in the organization and, specifically, how well they are articulating, modeling and reinforcing the desired culture?

At Denison, we have developed an integrated suite of products and services designed to help organizations answer such questions and develop a robust culture change and development solution. Culture and leadership can be measured and managed.

leader-3

Conclusions

A misaligned culture can be voracious in appetite. It can sabotage the most thoughtful and elegant of strategies. Leaders who are quick to blame the culture of their organization for the failure to execute on those strategies should take a careful look at their own impact on the culture. Yes, culture is about the collective and everyone is ultimately responsible for the way work does, or does not, get done. But a leader who creates ambiguity, skepticism and fear will spread that mindset like a virus. Unchecked, that leader will eat the culture and likely devour the strategy as well.

“A leader who creates ambiguity, skepticism and fear will spread that mindset like a virus.”

Bryan Adkins is the CEO of Denison Consulting.

Connect with Insights from Denison

If you’d like to be kept up to date when we release a new TRANSFORM article or important piece of research, we can notify you so you have immediate access. Yes, please let me know.

We use cookies to give you the best online experience. By agreeing, you accept the use of cookies in accordance with our cookie policy.

Private Equity
As a CEO of a private equity firm, you know that firms with a strong, vibrant culture perform better in a highly competitive marketplace. Denison can work with you to build effective culture in all of your portfolio firms. Our assessment tools enable you to capture a clear picture of your current state. Our consulting expertise supports you in making the changes necessary to achieve superior financial performance. It’s about how you work as a team, how your policies meet practice within the culture of the organization, how performance aligns with your investment criteria.
  • Delivers a consistent assessment of your portfolio companies
  • Gives you an unambiguous picture of the culture
  • Provides a disciplined process and measureable action plan for
  • Offers hands-on strategic consulting to address gaps and affirm best
practices currently being used by your portfolio companies
improvement
Our approach:
Financial Services
In the financial sector, you are active in a wide variety of client environments that need to support accountability and the highest ethical standards. The trust that your customer places in your organization is dependent upon the culture that your employees exhibit every day.

You need a clear understanding of how your culture and the people in your organization function within the midst of the complexities of the current financial institutional marketplace. The Denison Model can give you that clarity. From brokerage firms, to retail banking, to institutional banking to insurance, Denison has specific, measurable benchmarking that identifies the strengths and weaknesses of your organization. With this baseline diagnostic, our consulting team can support you to put in place action plans to sustain your high standards and see financial performance improvement.
Manufacturing
The manufacturing environment is constantly being tasked with improvement in quality and delivery while maintaining the highest levels of safety. The Denison Model equips you to reach from the senior leadership team to the shop floor in a globally networked manufacturing environment to build a culture oriented to continuous improvement in these mission critical areas.

Through our consultancy services, we work with a broad cross-section of your technical and operational staff to align around the goal of producing the highest quality products in the world--on time and on budget.
Healthcare
Within the healthcare market, high performance is measured primarily in patient outcomes. The marriage of the institution with doctors, support staff and operational teams is key to achieving best-in-class patient outcomes. Denison works with you to achieve these outcomes by building a culture that is tuned to the unique ecosystem of support that patients require.

Our organizational culture assessment based on the Denison Model is a proven approach that has supported healthcare providers with actionable feedback for decades. Against four core drivers of cultural high performance, the assessment identifies what is going well and clarifies challenges you may be facing. Then our consulting team is able to support you in addressing these challenges with action plans tailored to your inclusive and diverse environment.
Case Study
The management of culture in an organization whose members are always on the move.
Education
At Denison, student outcomes are well understood as the goal of every educational organization. Our consulting expertise and diagnostic tools allow your team to more fully understand, articulate and implement your mission. You will gain a collective understanding of your organization’s strengths, weaknesses and challenges benchmarked against other peer institutions, all targeted toward providing students with the best learning environment.

Then, through Action Planning, we will work with you to improve your academic and operational excellence to support the diverse student learning environment of higher education, K-12 schools and related associations.
Retail
As a retailer, you know that culture drives the customer experience of your organization. The hospitality, support, and follow-up lived out by your staff all make the difference in each interaction with a consumer. It's that experience that really drives what your behavior should be.

Denison allows you to understand how your organization can support the customer experience. We provide you data that helps you understand your organization all the way through checkout. And we provide sustainable support programs that enable you to address the challenges you face to attract and retain loyal brand customers and to ensure superior financial performance.
Restaurants
Smart restaurant owners know that the patron experience is driven by the culture of their organization. The hospitality, support, and follow-up lived out by your culinary and waitstaff all make the difference in each dish you serve. You know that it is the patron’s needs and expectations that really drive what your team’s behavior should be on the floor.

Denison allows you to understand how your organization is positioned to support the patron experience. We provide you benchmarked data from across the food industry that helps you understand your organization right to the final after-dinner mint. And we provide sustainable support programs that enable you to address the challenges you face to attract and retain loyal brand customers and to ensure superior financial performance.
Government
To achieve high performance in a government initiative requires a different understanding of metrics of success. Typical financial results of business, like sales growth or ROI, are not the KPIs measured here. Rather it is advancement of the mission.

For example, Denison supports military men and women in action through our work with the Defense Logistics Agency (DOA). We provide core culture assessment and an improvement program that helps this department maintain a strong culture to fulfill their mission--addressing everything needed to support fighting men and women in combat through readiness preparation.
Case Study
A transformation that didn’t require thousands of dollars, but a new way of interacting.
Technology
Because of the ever-increasing pace in the introduction of new technology and shortening of technology life-cycle, having a culture fluent in adaptability is critical. These factors all drive the need to recoup costs and show profit more and more quickly. Being able to seamlessly change business models to drive market expansion, product acceptance and superior performance is absolutely critical in this high-potential return but volatile market. Talent is also at a premium.

Based on diagnostics structured through the Denison Model, our consultancy team will help you build a culture that knows who it is and who best will fit your organization. With this alignment, you gain a competitive edge in attracting and retaining the engineers, researchers and innovators you need to lead in introducing market-changing innovation.
Transportation
Whether you deal with business travelers, tourists, or products in the supply chain, safety and schedule reliability are two of the key deliverables. For decades, Denison has worked with leaders in the transportation industry, helping transform organizations in the face of changing markets and technologies, to ensure consumer safety and satisfaction, as well as bottom-line business success.

When you bring Denison on board, our experienced consultants help you make decisions and plans based on data benchmarked against the global industry. We put your organization on the path to high performance, with measurable benefits to your bottom line.
PGlmcmFtZSB3aWR0aD0iMTAwJSIgaGVpZ2h0PSIxMDAlIiBzcmM9Imh0dHBzOi8vd3d3LnlvdXR1YmUuY29tL2VtYmVkL3ZONjJ6ZHd4NkNRP3JlbD0wIiBmcmFtZWJvcmRlcj0iMCIgYWxsb3dmdWxsc2NyZWVuPjwvaWZyYW1lPg==
PGlmcmFtZSB3aWR0aD0iMTAwJSIgaGVpZ2h0PSIxMDAlIiBzcmM9Imh0dHBzOi8vd3d3LnlvdXR1YmUuY29tL2VtYmVkL1BUWnhUNlp3eDJjP3JlbD0wIiBmcmFtZWJvcmRlcj0iMCIgYWxsb3dmdWxsc2NyZWVuPjwvaWZyYW1lPg==
PGlmcmFtZSB3aWR0aD0iMTAwJSIgaGVpZ2h0PSIxMDAlIiBzcmM9Imh0dHBzOi8vd3d3LnlvdXR1YmUuY29tL2VtYmVkLzU4aUU1c0RkNnVBP3JlbD0wIiBmcmFtZWJvcmRlcj0iMCIgYWxsb3dmdWxsc2NyZWVuPjwvaWZyYW1lPg==
PGlmcmFtZSB3aWR0aD0iMTAwJSIgaGVpZ2h0PSIxMDAlIiBzcmM9Imh0dHBzOi8vd3d3LnlvdXR1YmUuY29tL2VtYmVkL0dYVDBqZ28xYUVRP3JlbD0wIiBmcmFtZWJvcmRlcj0iMCIgYWxsb3dmdWxsc2NyZWVuPjwvaWZyYW1lPg==
PGlmcmFtZSB3aWR0aD0iMTAwJSIgaGVpZ2h0PSIxMDAlIiBzcmM9Imh0dHBzOi8vd3d3LnlvdXR1YmUuY29tL2VtYmVkL0ZqS1h1cHAwakVnP3JlbD0wIiBmcmFtZWJvcmRlcj0iMCIgYWxsb3dmdWxsc2NyZWVuPjwvaWZyYW1lPg==
PGlmcmFtZSB3aWR0aD0iMTAwJSIgaGVpZ2h0PSIxMDAlIiBzcmM9Imh0dHBzOi8vd3d3LnlvdXR1YmUuY29tL2VtYmVkL1U5dWppWXJxV2UwP3JlbD0wIiBmcmFtZWJvcmRlcj0iMCIgYWxsb3dmdWxsc2NyZWVuPjwvaWZyYW1lPg==
PGlmcmFtZSB3aWR0aD0iMTAwJSIgaGVpZ2h0PSIxMDAlIiBzcmM9Imh0dHBzOi8vd3d3LnlvdXR1YmUuY29tL2VtYmVkL3lYNUJYMjZ4M18wP3JlbD0wIiBmcmFtZWJvcmRlcj0iMCIgYWxsb3dmdWxsc2NyZWVuPjwvaWZyYW1lPg==
PGlmcmFtZSB3aWR0aD0iMTAwJSIgaGVpZ2h0PSIxMDAlIiBzcmM9Imh0dHBzOi8vd3d3LnlvdXR1YmUuY29tL2VtYmVkL1dDNEZkY1YtUFZZP3JlbD0wIiBmcmFtZWJvcmRlcj0iMCIgYWxsb3dmdWxsc2NyZWVuPjwvaWZyYW1lPg==
PGlmcmFtZSB3aWR0aD0iMTAwJSIgaGVpZ2h0PSIxMDAlIiBzcmM9Imh0dHBzOi8vd3d3LnlvdXR1YmUuY29tL2VtYmVkL1ByM1BHaENaNlkwP3JlbD0wIiBmcmFtZWJvcmRlcj0iMCIgYWxsb3dmdWxsc2NyZWVuPjwvaWZyYW1lPg==
PGlmcmFtZSB3aWR0aD0iMTAwJSIgaGVpZ2h0PSIxMDAlIiBzcmM9Imh0dHBzOi8vd3d3LnlvdXR1YmUuY29tL2VtYmVkL1pNcVZTeTM3QkljP3JlbD0wIiBmcmFtZWJvcmRlcj0iMCIgYWxsb3dmdWxsc2NyZWVuPjwvaWZyYW1lPg==
PGlmcmFtZSB3aWR0aD0iMTAwJSIgaGVpZ2h0PSIxMDAlIiBzcmM9Imh0dHBzOi8vd3d3LnlvdXR1YmUuY29tL2VtYmVkL0k5ZXJ3QlBzZUJRP3JlbD0wIiBmcmFtZWJvcmRlcj0iMCIgYWxsb3dmdWxsc2NyZWVuPjwvaWZyYW1lPg==
PGlmcmFtZSB3aWR0aD0iMTAwJSIgaGVpZ2h0PSIxMDAlIiBzcmM9Imh0dHBzOi8vd3d3LnlvdXR1YmUuY29tL2VtYmVkL3Q3OUlabThLc3ZzP3JlbD0wIiBmcmFtZWJvcmRlcj0iMCIgYWxsb3dmdWxsc2NyZWVuPjwvaWZyYW1lPg==
PGlmcmFtZSB3aWR0aD0iMTAwJSIgaGVpZ2h0PSIxMDAlIiBzcmM9Imh0dHBzOi8vd3d3LnlvdXR1YmUuY29tL2VtYmVkL1ZkZGRmM05oSXM4P3JlbD0wIiBmcmFtZWJvcmRlcj0iMCIgYWxsb3dmdWxsc2NyZWVuPjwvaWZyYW1lPg==
PGlmcmFtZSB3aWR0aD0iMTAwJSIgaGVpZ2h0PSIxMDAlIiBzcmM9Imh0dHBzOi8vd3d3LnlvdXR1YmUuY29tL2VtYmVkL05tb3FTM1BiczNJP3JlbD0wIiBmcmFtZWJvcmRlcj0iMCIgYWxsb3dmdWxsc2NyZWVuPjwvaWZyYW1lPg==