What we get completely wrong about Culture…and what to do about it

John is extremely frustrated.

The results are in :

  • The business has underperformed against target for the 5th quarter in a row. Revenue & Operating Margin trail the industry by 5% and 10% respectively.
  • Engagement scores are at an all time low. Attrition is increasing steeply.

He spends sleepless nights obsessing over, trying to figure out the root cause, but can’t quite put his finger on it.

He came into the CEO role 15 months ago, with much fanfare. His mandate is to transform the stagnating business, accelerate growth and increase profitability.

Based on his wealth of experience in a similar business, he is quick to identify the issues, and the big bets. He sets an inspiring vision, and a clear strategy and drives his leadership team hard to deliver on it.

Days turn into weeks, weeks into months, and nothing happens. The needle is stuck.

John is a very data driven, operationally savvy CEO. He has regular reviews with his team, individually and collectively, and when they present – metrics seem to go in the right direction and it seems like there is progress. But, it doesn’t show up in the business results.

Finally, John agrees to let an expert do diagnostics to understand the issue.

The issue is CULTURE. Peter Drucker famously said “Culture eats strategy for breakfast”. John and his team were living the tragedy of the quote in real time.

They uncover 3 fundamental issues that were not on the CEO’s radar, and were accepted as status quo by the rest of his team.

They were not driven by common business goals but rather by functional goals. This proliferated into 250+ self serving metrics, which did NOT reflect the health of the business. Each function could achieve their siloed goals, even when the business didn’t achieve its goals. People got pay increases and promotions even when the business didn’t achieve its goals!
Dysfunction in the form of politics, siloed behavior, lack of collaboration and support for the biggest bets derailed strategy at every turn.
The organization design was getting in the way of strategy by creating too many artificial barriers, layers, pointless matrices, lack of clarity of roles, responsibilities & decision rights, competing priorities and waste of time & resources.

These building blocks of culture were not aligned to strategy, thereby creating barriers faster than they could be resolved.

While each leadership team member went above and beyond to do their part, they couldn’t solve the larger complex entangled mess.

Thankfully this transformation story was a success, but there are so many more that aren’t.

Toxic culture is 10.4x higher predictor of attrition than pay

MIT Sloan Management Review 2022

5 things we get very wrong about culture

Culture is warm and fuzzy.

It is about the feel good stuff at the workplace. Reality: No, it is not.

It about the nuts & bolts of how people work together to get things done… what drives that behavior, and what are the barriers.

The C suite think they know the issues.

Reality: No, they don’t.

Most leaders truly believe they know the pulse of their people. Usually, these are hands on leaders with deep networks across levels. In every transformation I have led, the senior leaders always felt that they know the pain points and root causes, and were ready to dive into solutions.

Yet, every single one found the organization diagnostics eye opening, uncovering game changing insights, and in many cases, a complete 180 from their perspective!

Culture is about a great communication campaign.

Reality: Nope, culture is not a campaign.

Many leaders over index on a comms campaign with beautiful videos, slick presentations and town halls about the new vision and strategy. And often…stop there.

They often underindex on the ‘how’, and miss the change management plans, and the building blocks of culture.

Creating an Inspiring Vision, Strategy and Values is enough to build a strong culture.

Reality : It is just the start

Culture is the ecosystem that connects strategy to results.

Culture is not just about gourmet cafeterias and lavish events but rather about which behaviors are reinforced and which are discouraged.

Aligning the building blocks of culture to strategy is the most critical aspect of building a culture.

Culture is best driven top-down.

Reality : Culture has to be a movement, not a moment.

Building or changing culture has to generate momentum top down, bottoms up and sideways.

It is about every employee adopting desired behaviors that enable strategy. Listening, experimenting & co-creating with your people is critical to success.

Culture is the glue that connects strategy to execution

5 Steps to building a strong culture


Understand lived experiences – the tone, texture, context, story, and impact. When trying to understand the complexity of human experience and human emotion, surveys are often inadequate. While there are a plethora of engagement surveys, the lack of focus on lived experience, shows us the incongruence of the methodology to the magnitude of the task at hand.
It is critical to tap into the power of small group listening, in order to understand and empathize with lived experiences, and allow it to inform our actions.
We created Listening Labs during the pandemic, and I was blown away by the kind of sharing and insights it generated. It elevates the quality of listening exponentially.

building a foundation of trust

Create a foundation of psychological safety and collective ownership in your organization through custom designed solutions & workshops

rallying in one direction

Establish a clear sense of collective identity & clarity of direction by co-creating vision, mission, values & desired behaviors with your team

accelerating together

Align the building blocks of culture to strategy. This creates the support system to reinforce desired culture

sustaining momentum

Create a virtuous cycle of ‘feed forward’ and a sense of individual & collective accountability to sustain the momentum of your culture journey

In our org diagnostics, culture workshops, consulting and coaching, we use proven tools as well as proprietary methodologies to help you build or transform a thriving culture that enables strategy.

Learn more about our work on Culture & Values here.

If you want to learn more about how we can help your business & culture, schedule a 30 min free call. You get to pick our brain, we get to pick yours…great deal!

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Disclaimer : The case study has been fictionalized and anonymized to avoid reference to real contexts.

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