Does Culture REALLY eat Strategy for breakfast?

August 24 2021

I originally published this piece on LinkedIn back in May 2018, including some ideas sparked by the 2018 Australian Leadership Summit. That was back when we used to attend actual events! Am re-posting it today as it’s worth a quick read if you ever wonder about the answer to this time-honoured question. Have added a couple of 2021 edits or notes…

Culture has been said to eat Strategy for breakfast (or lunch!). But does it really?

When around 75-80% of efforts around ‘change strategies’ fail to realise the gains they set out to achieve, it’s not just about poor implementation of a brilliant idea! Perhaps, culture is the real culprit… (or one of them, failing to budget is another – PM 2021 note!).

The famous ‘which eats what’ notion has been attributed to Peter Drucker, originating the phrase “culture eats strategy for breakfast” somewhere back in C20. Sometimes ‘lunch’ replaces ‘breakfast’, but the question remains the same. It’s based around the notion that no matter how good your strategy is, your organisational culture is more powerful.

Working with a group of leaders recently, I presented a new take on this statement, one found in Mastering Leadership namely that:

Culture / when it is ineffective / eats strategy for breakfast.

But then in pulling this apart, and with the input of an inspired thought from one of these leaders, we also concluded:

Culture / when it is highly effective / means that great things are achieved almost regardless of a highly-articulated strategy.

In other words, culture really does eat strategy for breakfast – and that’s whether it’s a great culture, or a deplorable culture!

Culture, being about people, and the way their organisation wittingly and unwittingly coaxes them to behave, to communicate and to work together, must have an impact on business performance.

A highly effective culture is now seen as being one where people are aligned, courageous, creative, collaborative, mutually supportive, empowered, self-aware, visionary, systems-savvy and achievement-oriented.

Leaders set the tone for Culture

In practice, when it comes to culture, leaders set the tone – particularly the C-suite / senior Exec. So whatever the formal version of culture may be (as stated in values, vision, mission etc), culture is partly an outcome of the individuals in the organisation and how they show up as leaders.

I’m sure there’s hardly a leader who hasn’t at times been burnt by the way they showed up  – overall, or even just at a time. I sure have! It’s ok, it’s part of being human…

This incorporates the notion that how we lead doesn’t depend so much on what we know, or what we intend, it depends on who we are! Our leadership impact is substantially about our identity and, in the words of Bob Anderson (who I was excited to meet at the Australian Leadership Summit in Sydney last week), leadership is the deployment of self into circumstances.

We are all carriers of the culture we are trying to change.

So what can leaders do, if they want to develop a culture that enables their strategy rather than constantly frustrates or undermines it?

Well first, don’t just focus on just changing culture ‘out there’. Own it!

A ‘reactive’ organisational culture and poor team dynamics resulting from low personal and collective leadership effectiveness means that strategy gets consumed. And if that’s the current state, without deep personal development, leaders will drive a culture that keeps returning ‘to normal’ – dragging reality back to the level of their belief structure and behaviour.

Cultural dynamics will tend to reset themselves as we attempt to change them, in spite of our best intentions to have the business operate in a new transformed way.

Leadership identity and empowered organisational culture

But leaders who are intent on developing their internal culture (personal leadership capacity, and ultimately identity) will find that the culture ‘out there’ in the organisation develops, partly just because they are developing ‘in here’ … this link from leadership to culture is inevitable given that when leaders lead, people do follow – for good, or not so good!

The significance of leadership culture in an exec team multiplies this impact. The highly developed exec team becomes an enabler and inspirer of a culture that produces high performance, and results in high team satisfaction.

And without that – without the credibility that leaders build as a result of showing that culture rests on their own focus on growth – culture will enjoy a good breakfast on strategy, while having a quiet but cynical laugh to itself, time and again.

The impact of Leadership identity on developing an empowered organisational culture (that can actually deliver on a declared strategy) is captured nicely in Mastering Leadership:

One leader said, “how did we think we could transform the culture without transforming ourselves?”

So, develop as a leader, which really means keep on developing as a human and bring that to your leadership.

There’s a way to be in the 20-25% that actually deliver on their strategy, rather than letting culture eat it.

The Leadership Circle development model is available through Atwork Consulting – get in touch and we’d be happy to assist.

Cheers, Paul