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In Business, It’s Culture that Eats Strategy for Breakfast

Strategy is often talked about in business schools. In fact, strategy is a primary focus there. Culture, however, is less understood. Culture involves a variety of contributing factors, including a blend of attitudes, beliefs, mission, philosophy and momentum that help to create and sustain a successful brand. Culture represents the vision, norms, symbols, beliefs, behaviors and traditions that are taught to new members of an organization. Organizational culture affects the way people within an organization interact with one another and the people they serve.

Organizations such as Zappos and Apple, which are consistently ranked as great companies to work for, each has a distinguished culture and a solid strategy. Although all companies have ups and downs, these two have remained strong over a long period of time. An important factor in their success is their strong organizational culture.

Organizational culture has a much stronger power on employees’ motivation than strategy does. Culture fuels growth. It’s the secret sauce of strategy. Without this sauce, the strategy isn’t as effective. Corporate culture describes and governs the ways a company’s owners and employees think, feel and act. It is built from the combined experiences of the members of an organization at all levels.

Culture is key in an organization for long-term success. It is the most important thing in an organization and it applies at all levels, from the top of the organization all the way down. Rules, regulations and operating standards are important, of course, because you have to have systems in place to guide activities. But culture is the factor that stands above all others.

There are many factors that go into building an organizational culture. Each successful company has a different combination of factors that makes its culture successful. Here are a few that I think are particularly important:

1.    Traditions

Traditions help make a company what it is. They tell the world who they the company is as an organization. One way for an organization to maintain and develop its organizational culture and ethos is to introduce and celebrate a variety of traditions. Disney in particular has been a master of this concept by training all new employees on the traditions of the organization. Strong traditions that are applied throughout an organization are one of the best ways to maintain a healthy organizational culture.

2.    Mission

A burning mission can give laser focus to an organization. The mission statement needs to be short and memorable. Most important, it needs to be a rallying cry for people throughout the organization. One thing I’ve learned in running a business for almost 30 years is that “ignorance on fire is better than knowledge on ice.” Getting employees and clients excited about the mission is critical to organizational success. If the average employee can’t recite your mission, then the mission is too long. has a great example of a short and effective mission statement. Amazon states that its “vision is to be earth’s most customer centric company; to build a place where people can come to find and discover anything they might want to buy online.”

3.    Engagement

Collaboration encourages engagement. Get all levels of an organization involved. In BNI, the global referral network I founded almost 30 years ago, we have focused on getting a high level of engagement at all levels of the company. This engagement includes a Franchise Advisory Board made up of key franchisees to address organizational challenges, a Founder’s Circle of stakeholders to provide direct feedback to management about issues concerning the organization, a Board of Advisors made up exclusively of clients to ensure engagement regarding policies that effect the organization globally and an Executive Council made up of the largest seven master franchisees within the organization. This is in addition to several other entities that help ensure full participation at all levels of the organization. Engagement can be messy, but when done correctly, it encourages a collaborative culture.

4.    Recognition

Many years ago, Ken Blanchard got it right in his bestselling book, The One Minute Manager. He said, “Catch people doing something right,” and recognize them publicly. Praise in public and re-direct in private. No truer words have ever been spoken when it comes to building a healthy organizational culture. Recognize and celebrate successes. As Blanchard says, if you can’t catch people doing something right – then catch them doing something “partially right” and recognize that. We all need recognition.

5.    Education

Immerse and engage in a culture of learning. The more a company can integrate ongoing learning into its organizational ethos, the more likely that company is to stay nimble and prepared for change. Educating the organization regarding the culture of the company is particularly important to fuel and maintain a great culture there. A great strategy keeps you in the game, but a great culture helps you win. Especially important are the traditions and mission of the company. These things need to be part of the ongoing education of all new and existing employees.

Culture is a critical key to organizational success. It is one of the most important things in a company and it applies to all levels, from the top of the organization all the way down. The challenge with culture is that it is illusive. The best and most scalable culture is one that is managed and maintained by the majority and not by a single policing body or by management alone.

Companies that dominate an industry for a long period of time do so because of a shared vision of organizational culture that is effectively implemented throughout the company. That shared implementation of the vision is an important key to building a successful organizational culture. If all the people in an organization row in the same direction in unison, that organization can dominate any industry, in any market, against any competition, at any time.

Implementing a strong organizational strategy can be difficult. But implementing a healthy organizational culture is rare. In my opinion when all is said and done, culture eats strategy for breakfast any day.

Called the “father of modern networking” by CNN, Dr. Ivan Misner is a New York Times bestselling author. He is the Founder and Chairman of BNI, the world’s largest business networking organization. His newest book can be viewed at Dr. Misner is also the Sr. Partner for the Referral Institute, an international referral training company.

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