September marks the most intense period of hurricane season along the Southern and Eastern seaboard of the United States. Every year (and some more than others) water evaporates in the warm tropical waters near the equator, condenses high in the air, and forms clouds. Once the westerly wind keeps swirling, clouds keep forming, and a hurricane is born. You can’t really pull the pieces apart to analyze them independent of one another. Each aspect has an impact on the other and together, they create a hurricane.
Turns out, despite our best efforts to treat aspects of our organization independently, organizations aren’t that different from hurricanes.
Like the hurricane needing water of a certain temperature and wind of sufficient strength to get going, your organization is comprised of a set of ingredients that feed off each other to create the whole. And just like the hurricane, each component has an impact on the other; the weaker parts feed off the stronger, and vice versa.
Strategy. Leadership. Culture. While these foundational elements of any organization are consistently discussed, in our experience, even the best organizations tragically address these ingredients as if they were not inextricably linked. This leaves too many executives giving ill-considered commands based on expensive misdiagnoses and narrow perspectives.
I often get requests that sound like: “I need you to coach James, his entire department doesn’t seem to understand they support operations,” or “We always come up with great strategies but never execute.”
Moreover, I see organizations hiring consultants to deal with a singular aspect of their organization. One consultant handles a shift in strategic direction, while another brings methodologies and frameworks to elevate the leadership prowess of their direct reports.
I used to be one of those consultants and will always stand by my work even if it was done in parts; however, after many years of only being able to take a client so far, I now have adopted an approach that integrates strategy, leadership, and culture. What I have learned is that when you address one without consideration of the other two, and when you do not take the time to understand how each interplays with the other to produce more than the sum of its parts, most efforts will fall short of expectations. And, often, these siloed efforts unintentionally undermine each other.
Have a culture problem? Very often we end up addressing a strategic plan or overarching organizational strategy. Have issues with your leadership? I have never seen it improve without addressing culture. Without a coordinated approach to all three corners this proverbial Bermuda Triangle from which your enterprise’s storm of execution roars to life, you may never make it out of that slurry of wind and clouds.
A Leadership Problem Stemming from Culture
Working with a large organization in the United States, we were approached to help the enterprise through a major reorganization that was already in flight. The organization, according to the executives, had no shortage of talented and capable leaders. What the reorganization wrought, however, was a big change in priorities, responsibilities, and roles for these capable and lauded leaders. The wide assumption from the top of the organization was the changing and shifting expectations and outputs would be seamless – that the corps of leaders would take to the change like a fish to water – so long as they communicated clearly and often.
I am sure you can see where this is going. The reorganization hit speed bumps, performance dwindled, and breakdowns arose in swift succession of each other.
When we arrived at the organization amidst the brewing chaos, the C-Suite told us, “We have a real leadership problem!” That was our remit for the project: discover what was happening with their self-diagnosed leadership issue, and fix it. What we discovered, however, was that there was no leadership problem at all – they had an organizational culture disconnect.
Before the reorganization efforts launched approximately 12 months prior, the enterprise was operating in a culture of ‘just get it done.’ It was a no-questions-asked, all-hands-on-deck, get-it-done, whatever-it-takes kind of culture. In an earlier era, it had served them well and was embedded deeply in their ways of operating.
Invisible to those operating inside of the culture daily, the organization’s culture layered a set of constraints on the leaders. Regardless of new strategies, policies, and workflows, the organization’s culture is what ultimately dictated their actions and output. We could have trained their leaders, but their impact would have remained the same. We could have imbued them with new ways to see their work and taught them a set of new actions to take, but all those efforts would have been for naught, as they were all deeply entrenched in a culture that no longer suited their aims.
A Culture Problem Born from Strategy
We recently worked with a client in higher education complaining about their culture simply not working. Their days were filled with internal fighting, growing discontent, and fracturing relationships. The organization launched cultural interventions and workshops and tried to open two-way dialogue between leadership and the rank-and-file, but nothing seemed to move the needle with their culture.
After several sessions designed to impact the leaders and the culture, we started asking about their strategy. “Why are they asking about our strategy? We called them to address our culture!” some said.
As it turns out, like many organizations, they had 15+ strategic priorities yet lacked an aligned-on, coherent, strategic kernel that gave all the independent campuses of the district a reason to come together as one team. As Adam Bryant says, “Yes, a bad culture can devour a good strategy. But more companies need to appreciate the degree to which a sharp strategy can be a cornerstone of a healthy culture.”
When we worked with the senior leaders to discover and create a coherent, unifying, and updated strategy, something surprising happened: culture change became possible.
Well, it was surprising to them, but not to us.
A Leadership Challenge Met with Cultural and Strategic Clarity
By way of the last example, a few years ago we were called in to address a self-determined glaring need for a large national health care provider. The senior executives told us that their leaders were simply not generating enough, fast enough, and that they were not thinking and acting like leaders. The vision they shared with us was that of a leadership development curriculum that holistically develops individuals into naturally filling the voids around the enterprise caused by its aggressive growth strategy.
By taking the time to understand the enterprise’s culture and get crystal clear on not just what their strategy was, but why the strategy was set in place, the relevant leadership curriculum became clear.
Today, their internal leadership college is graduating 35 leaders per quarter who are leaving the program in lockstep with the enterprise’s strategy, championing the culture, and leading the organization into its next era.
The Bottom Line
The point is that the people in your enterprise are operating in a system. That system is made up of three critical pillars–Strategy, Leadership, and Culture. The insight most executives miss is that each pillar imposes a set of guide rails and trail markers on its people which determines their output. Strategy is often dictated by the cultural norms of an organization. If we don’t consider those natural constraints against any well-thought-out strategy, it will likely prove ineffective out of the gate. What are the conditions and enabling structures that strategy sets for your leaders? Some of those enabling structures will allow leaders to perform and provide their best output, while others will leave you wanting.
What leaders of today’s large and complex enterprises are butting up against is not as simple as sour culture. And it certainly is not as cut and dry as an insufficient strategy or bad leaders. Each of these major pillars is churning your enterprise’s perfect storm, feeding off of, contributing to, and in some cases, detracting from and getting in the way of, others. Going to work on impacting one invariably requires consideration and tending to each of the others.
Where does your enterprise’s culture inhibit desired leadership behaviors? Does it enable or disable the execution of your strategy? Are your leaders equipped to carry out your strategy? How does your strategy guide your leaders in their thinking, decisions, and actions?
Looking at all three corners of your organization in concert will yield exponentially more value than dealing with each facet in a vacuum.
By: Kari Granger & Don Durand