“Culture eats strategy for breakfast”, is a quote often attributed to the late management thinker Peter Drucker, meaning to say that a healthy culture is a more powerful driver of organizational success than any strategy the business could come up with. Clearly a business needs both, but the emphasis on the importance of culture is indubitably appropriate.

Any of us who’ve ever worked in a toxic or dysfunctional culture know that an environment of excessive politicking, backstabbing, favoritism or lack of inclusiveness is doomed to flounder, especially in our reputation economy where the best talent flocks to those organizations where trust, fairness and individual autonomy create the conditions necessary for everyone to succeed.   

“I want to lead with heart more” was a comment a CEO I’ve coached said to me at the beginning of our engagement. He’d been listening to feedback that the aggressive communication style that was custom among members of the senior leadership team started wearing on people throughout the organization, leading to unintended consequences such as increased turnover and lack of candor in group meetings and conversations. While risk-taking was officially encouraged, the fear of rebuke and reprisal that flowed through the organizational HVAC system tended to truncate discussion and stifle the open and honest dialogue needed to drive the business forward. The CEO heeded the feedback and took strong action to change the way he and his team communicated, to ensure that employees throughout the company felt a strong sense of psychological safety and spoke up with courage and conviction.   

During this unfreezing event that is the COVID-19 pandemic, change has forced itself upon us in a speed and fashion that’s unprecedented, and as we adapt to unfamiliar ways of working, leading, and communicating with each other, there is an opportunity to step back and ask what we’d do differently if we could start over. With the existing status quo in flux, we are in a unique position to challenge the beliefs, values, and behaviors that defined the culture in which we’ve operated thus far—“the way things are done around here”—and get everyone to participate in imagining and creating an evolved version that allows each stakeholder to reach their full potential, not to mention take the organization to new heights.

How would we communicate with each other? How to collaborate more effectively? How to make sure everyone’s voice is heard? What conditions and resources would need to be in place to make it happen? What are the real and perceived barriers—emotional, hierarchical, structural, physical, cultural etc.—that would keep us from getting there?

Asking these types of questions of all of the organization’s stakeholders can also create a renewed sense of community and collaboration that may get lost in the current environment of remote meetings and the physical isolation in which we find ourselves for the time being. While Zoom meetings may be a convenient alternative to congregating in person, the drawbacks mount—from the lack of nonverbal signals we’d normally send each other to strengthen interpersonal connection, to the gameshow-like competition for airtime, where the most vocal participants typically outcompete their more introverted colleagues, whose presence is then relegated to a muted video-tile somewhere on the screen.  

An intentional focus on rebuilding parts or all of a culture—micro-cultures of departments and teams count too—also offers an inspirational, not to mention aspirational, goal, in positive contrast to the stress of constant firefighting and crisis management. It would allow people to decompress for a short while and tap into a more productive future-oriented frame of mind that sees opportunity amid threat and disruption.  

Culture may eat strategy for breakfast, but we can use this period of improvisation to rewrite the playbook and strategize for the type of culture we really want.