What Do You Do When You Can't Beat the Culture?

Yesterday I blogged about the importance of using culture to inform strategy.  The simple phrase "culture eats strategy for breakfast" was initially coined by Peter Drucker and has since become a leadership mantra.  Great leaders know the importance of working from the inside out, taking the time to understand the culture and shared beliefs within an organization before trying to influence the future through strategy.  

All of this assumes that the culture is healthy and ready for the vision that the leader wishes to inspire.  But, what do you do when you arrive to an organization that possesses a very unhealthy culture and you realize that your challenge is not to leverage the culture, but to change it?   This is the challenge with which we see many college presidents and independent school heads saddled after their honeymoon period is over.  They were brought in to solve a problem that is cultural in nature.  

Shifting a culture is serious business and should not be taken lightly.  Our experience tells us that there are three ways to influence a negative or unhealthy culture.   

  1. Just Listen.  Stakeholders have to be listened and affirmed by leaders.  You won't get very far if your people don't believe you have taken the time to be present with them and took the effort to understand them.  You don't have to agree - you just have to listen.
  2. Get the Facts.  Nothing solves problems than the brutal facts.  Truth can really be liberating to an organization when it is constructed and delivered properly.  Most organizations with an unhealthy culture don't understand their issues in relation to best practices.  Use research and data delivered from a third party to provide an objective, fact-driven view of the organization.
  3. Leverage a Process.  Schools run differently than small business.  Thoughtful and inclusive processes always win the day, while top-down approaches in change are rarely successful.  Use a research-driven strategic planning process to not only guide the institution in creating a direction, but also involve people in helping write the future through their own engagement.  

Creating a shift in culture is tough.  But, getting beat by the culture is even tougher.  Our experience tells us the real leaders are the ones that stick around long enough to eradicate unhealthy culture and move the organization forward in a thoughtful, inclusive - sometimes painful - way.  Their leadership leaves a cultural residue that typically lasts much longer than their tenure as a leader. so the next leader can leverage the culture the prior leader helped create.   

Then you can serve strategy for breakfast again.