Why company culture eats strategy for breakfast

Representatives from the armed forces came to my son’s school to recruit soon to be high school graduates. Each branch of the armed forces gave a little presentation and slide show about what made them unique. Except for the Marine recruiter.

The Marine recruiter walked up to the podium and silently looked into the eyes of each of the students in the room. This took several minutes, and as he did it the tension rose in the room. After looking at each person intently he said,

“I don’t think I see anyone here who has what it takes to be a Marine. You might think I’m wrong. If so, come see me after the presentation.”

Then he sat down.

company culture

The Marines are not going to attract the same candidates who might be attracted by the Navy’s presentation — they are looking for men and women with a different set of values. It’s part of their DNA: “The few, the proud, the Marines.” By being different, and demonstrating that difference strongly, the Marines have built a very cohesive culture; despite drawing from a very diverse base of recruits, among all the branches of the military, the level of commitment from the Marines is remarkable.

It’s that cohesion that they draw on when the stakes are high. It’s that cohesion that demands action in the face of danger or death! The Marines have intentionally built a strong, self-reinforcing culture; and that culture makes them one of the most effective armed forces on the earth.

“Culture eats strategy for breakfast, technology for lunch, and products for dinner, and soon thereafter everything else too.” – Peter Drucker

The core values of a company matter. A company with great strategy, superior technology, and wonderful products can still fail if the culture inside the business is not coherent (and fails to draw the organization together). Conversely, a company with a great culture can often survive some mis-steps and a few bumps in the road because the employees are committed to something more than a paycheck, and the customers have found more than a vendor, they have connected with a “tribe”. It’s that connection that we call culture, and it’s the secret weapon for growing your business.

A well constructed company culture guides employee decisions about both business activities and how they interact with others. It means that there’s an agreement about what we will do, and what we won’t do — even if we came from vastly different backgrounds, and have different life goals. At work we are going to act like this.

Research from Booz and Company found that 84% of executives believe culture is critical to their business success and 60% of executives believe culture is more important than strategy or their operating model. Just to be clear, really successful companies have both, great culture and a great strategy — but culture is something that changes slowly — if at all. Part of choosing the right strategy is finding one that aligns with the culture of the company. No matter how brilliant a strategy, it would never work for Apple to try to be the low cost supplier — that wouldn’t align with their culture.

Culture is the CEO’s job — something only they can do. You can delegate your product development, and you may not drive your company’s approach to technology; but the culture is up to you. In a small company, the culture will most often be a reflection of you. The way you communicate is the way everyone will communicate, the way you treat others is the way everyone will treat others.

The team is going to look to you for cues.

Is what you are reflecting to them what you want your culture to be?

Nearly every business owner I talk to asks me about how to make their team more committed. How can they get a team that’s focused and doesn’t “do stupid things”? That’s what culture is for. Culture is a mutual agreement about how we will act, what values we will hold, and most importantly what we won’t do. Having a strong company culture means that no one person needs to enforce that agreement — the whole organization will enforce it. In fact, a company with a strong, healthy company culture will reject bad hires — those who don’t share the company values — by enforcing the culture and communicating that the new hire needs to conform.

Culture eats strategy for breakfast; it always has and it always will.

You just need to make sure that that dynamic is working in your favor.

What have you done to build, and reinforce your company culture?

core values list
Photo credit: Marine Corps Archives & Special Collectionsfabmae76

Devan Perine

Devan Perine works with small business owners on their marketing and multimedia efforts. She's passionate about helping businesses build their presence online, and giving Gen Y a voice in the workplace. When she's not working, she loves to make a mess in the kitchen, and play with her band around Chicago. She loves to chat! Give her a shout on Google+, Twitter or LinkedIn.


  1. I just love this!
    I think a strong culture is what we lack at Customericare right now and we’ve mentioned it in our latest meeting. People used to look at the product but things have changed drastically in the past few years and company culture works wonders.

    I was surprised by the Marines example. I never really looked at it this way but it turns out to be the perfect example here. I think you hit the nail on the head when you mentioned how they make people who join feel proud about their job. That’s what most successful company manage to achieve and that’s what a lot of new ones forget.

  2. Couldn’t agree more. Culture is what enables execution of the strategy. No amount of great strategy will succeed if it s not executed properly with the support of those in charge.

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