Culture: It's What's for Breakfast

by Tara Carraro, Senior Vice President and Chief Communications Officer

Influential thinker, author, and educator Peter Drucker famously said, “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.”

It is a simple expression of a complex idea that is indispensable to the success of not only any corporate strategy, but also of any corporation itself. It is a mandate that springs from the clear understanding that when people are connected, energized, and moving together with purpose, there are no limits to where they can go and what they can achieve. 

Yet, too often, culture is not afforded the attention it deserves, not embedded in the systems, processes, and structure that drive success. It is treated as an add-on, rather than the cornerstone of strategy. When that occurs–and particularly when it is coupled with a failure to recognize the vital role communications plays in elevating culture—strategy can’t help but be undermined.

On the other hand, businesses that see communications as the gateway to culture and recognize it as the bridge between culture and strategies that lead to desired business outcomes, are well poised to realize their most aspirational aims.

They leverage communications to align employees with organizational goals, provide visibility into how each team and each member contributes to the broader vision, and drive results that serve all stakeholders.

So how can a company utilize communications to activate culture and reap those rewards?

There are several ways, but one of the most impactful is through the creation of culture champions, people whose trusted voices within functions, departments, and the company-at-large help amplify the messages you want to impart and model the behaviors you want to see.

These influencers exist in every organization; they are the folks that others go to, to ask, “What do you think about this?” Partnering with HR, organizational leaders, and employee resource and affinity groups will help you identify and onboard them. 

People leaders are also influencers, and their impact in delivering internal messages that will be both heard and believed cannot be underestimated. In fact, having conducted countless employee surveys in my 30+ years as a communications professional, what stands out to me is how definitively survey results confirm that the most credible source of information for employees is their immediate leader.

That is why people leaders are essential to building a network of trusted culture champions.

Once a stronghold of reliable, internal influencers is formed, you must give them the training and tools they need to cascade messages through your organization and enroll employees in the culture you’re nurturing, and then you must be public about their success.

At a prior employer in the consumer products space, my team and I did that by inaugurating reward and recognition programs to celebrate people and groups that modeled desired behaviors, including an innovation award, team award, and leadership development award.

We also launched a transformation newsletter to share and amplify success stories. Collectively, these initiatives established a sense of ownership in the culture we had and the one we were building and welcomed influencers to participate in determining what the future state would be. This, in turn, inspired them to articulate to others why those decisions were critical in terms of driving business results.

Remember though that you can't just rely on communications. You must think about the broader systems and processes that need to change as well. For instance, you may have to modify how you evaluate performance, so that it takes into consideration not only what was accomplished but how it was achieved and provides the formal confirmation employees need to take risks without fear.

One of the ways we did that in a prior role was through the creation of the Phoenix Award. Building on the story of the mythical bird who dies only to rise again from its own ashes, the program actually celebrated individuals who tried something that “failed” by refocusing attention on what they learned and/or how they adapted and reached their goal in future attempts.

The PhoenixAward encouraged the kind of bold and innovative thinking that drives positive business outcomes, while still prioritizing culture principles.

Above all else, there must be consistency at every level—even the company must walk the talk. Few things will erode the sense of camaraderie in a team, along with the credibility of its leader, than when someone isn't performing or isn't behaving in the manner in which everyone else is expected to perform, particularly if there are no consequences for the breach.

Companies and people leaders must be willing to do what’s necessary, regardless how hard, whenever anyone refuses to embrace new cultural norms.

Over the course of my career, I have repeatedly witnessed the truth of Peter Drucker’s words: It is culture, far more than strategy, that impacts business results.

In two of my prior leadership roles, when we undertook a strategic transformation, culture change was a key pillar, afforded the same attention as reevaluating the organization’s structure, supply chain logistics, and customer service.

When you are determined to nurture an effectively communicated, fully embraced, and organizationally authentic culture in your company, you will be laying out a strategic roadmap that will drive optimal business results and deliver great success for all its stakeholders as well.

About the author

Tara Carraro serves as Senior Vice President and Chief Communications Officer for U. S. Steel where she is responsible for reputation management and communications strategies designed to help deliver on our Best for All® strategy.

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