Culture Eats Strategy for Breakfast: Tips for Developing Talent in Your Organization

Legend has it that the late management guru, Peter Drucker, said: “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.” It doesn’t appear in any of his 39 books, but the phrase was attributed to him in 2006 by Mark Fields, who later became chief executive of Ford, and the phrase is gaining new currency as part of the movement for purpose-led business.

From his writings, Drucker was an advocate that a company’s culture thwarts any attempt to create or enforce a strategy that is incompatible with that culture. And, while many studies show there is a direct correlation between a healthy, productive culture and a company’s bottom line, the majority of companies spend little time thinking, let alone doing anything about this topic – even when they’re spending lots of time thinking about their business strategy.

We know that any organizations greatest expense (and asset) is its people. Employee turnover, recruiting, onboarding and training can take a huge toll on any organizations’ bottom line. And the inverse, retaining and activating talent, is the key to the success of any organizations – just look at the correlations between “the best companies to work for” and those companies’ success.

If we know that retaining and activating talent is our number one driver for long-term financial success, then why does it seem that there are so many organizations that have leaders that know so little about how to grow talent? Here are few tips from Drew Hansen:

Time. It’s scarce, and urgent tasks have a tendency to consume it. Leaders who aren’t disciplined in their priorities will be subject to daily crises that interfere with activities that are part of a long-term investment in people.

Focus on visible skills. As leaders rise to more senior positions, it’s natural to feel like they need to demonstrate strategic thinking, strong business acumen, and effective P&L management — noticeable skills that catch people’s attention. Building talent, on the other hand, is less obvious and has a long-term payoff.

Lack of development culture. One of the most interesting findings in the research is that even lower-level leaders who made talent development a priority start to slip when they enter the senior ranks. One-on-one coaching can be intrinsically fulfilling and, for that reason alone, leaders are more likely to set aside time for it. But senior executives make the biggest impact when they distinguish between individual coaching and organizational coaching. It’s the latter that lacks most. Call it the culture, or environment, of development that’s missing.

Act as a role model. Be transparent about your own need to learn and develop and share how you’re able to do it. Embrace vulnerability: leaders are never more powerful than when they are shown to be learning.

Reinforce the value of learning. Go beyond the baseline conversation about goals. Ask about what they want to accomplish and what they feel their gaps are.  When someone completes an assignment, celebrate both the outcome and the learning, especially if the assignment wasn’t completed as smoothly as everyone would’ve liked.

Build sustainable processes to support development. Managers should be expected to coach and develop their people. At a minimum, everyone knows what areas they need to improve, and for those with particularly high potential, career tracks are developed that give them a sense of where they can go inside the organization.

Reinforce shared values. Employees should be able to link their everyday tasks and responsibilities to the values in the organization. People need to understand why what they do is important.

Leverage problems as opportunities for real world learning and development. What’s an acceptable failure needs to be clarified and that way, by incorporating stretch assignments, employees can seek out challenges where they can develop without feeling like mistakes will set them back in their career or jeopardize their job. Learning organizations see problems as opportunities.