Culture Doesn't Trump Strategy

by Mike Myatt

Culture Doesn't Trump StrategyI was checking Twitter yesterday while getting ready to board my flight when a quote attributed to @zappos (Tony Hsieh, CEO of Zappos) came across my timeline. It read “Culture Trumps Strategy.” I did a double-take on this as it just didn’t resonate with me. Then my timeline started to get peppered with Retweets of this quote from some very bright people. Okay, maybe I missed something here… I really respect Tony Hsieh, and the people Retweeting this quote are some very smart people, I better read it again – “Culture Trumps Strategy” – it still didn’t resonate with me. What did I do next? I Googled the phrase “Culture Trumps Strategy” and found that Stanford offered an Entrepreneurship Lecture by this title, I found several CEOs using the phrase in speeches, press releases, etc., I even found a few blogs espousing the mantra of “Culture Trumps Strategy.” Could this just be an issue of semantics? Maybe it’s just a nice politically correct soundbite that gets some good play, or is it simply flawed logic?

Since when are a healthy culture and sound business strategy bifurcated? Great corporate cultures are built by design. While I suppose that a great culture could somehow evolve by default or osmosis, I have yet to observe it. Creating a healthy culture is a matter of making it a focus point within the corporate values, vision, mission and strategy. Put simply, a corporation’s strategy that ignores, or only pays lip service to culture, will be the beneficiary of the toxic culture they deserve. Back in the dot.com days I watched many a young enterprise suffer from placing culture ahead of strategy, or worse, even focusing on culture in lieu of strategy. When the marketplace began to see through the spin and the vapor, all the fun and games in the world couldn’t save a flawed business model. The fun was over and the culture ceased to exist.

Every vibrant, healthy, inspiring, innovative, and positive corporate culture I’ve witnessed has occurred not because culture has been placed ahead of strategy, but because it has been a key driver of the corporate strategy. Why does everything in today’s world have to be framed within an exclusionary either/or proposition? I’ve consistently found that the best scenarios are the ones that allow you to have your cake and eat it too. Why separate culture from strategy to their mutual demise, when culture is secured, enhanced, and sustained by sound strategy?

So, back to my original source of confusion… How could such bright people seemingly be taking exception to the thoughts Ive shared above? The more I pondered the statement “Culture Trumps Strategy” the more I thought I may understand what it was these bright people, whom I respect immensely, were actually trying to say… I just disagreed with how they were saying it. So I dug a bit deeper and found a New York Times interview with Tony Hsieh in which he described his experience with building corporate culture, and how it impacted his current philosophy. My suspicions were confirmed. As I read the interview I found that contrary to the quote which was attributed to him, culture was actually woven in to the very fabric of his strategy at Zappos. Moreover, the corporate values of Zappos are foundational to creating their corporate vision.

Bottom line: I’m not sure that Tony Hseih and the collective body of those who Retweeted his quote actually disagree with me on anything other than how we chose to express our views. Therein lies my caution… I’m fearful that people who don’t have the experience or intuition to read between the lines of a short quote, or a 140 character Tweet, might be misled by the simplicity of the appeal. This is why I took the time to author today’s post. In reality, Culture does not Trump Strategy, rather they work together to enhance the success of one another. What say you?

P.S.
Our closet is adorned with many a pair of shoes from Zappos. Their customer service is the best I’ve experienced anywhere, and I remain a fan of Tony Hsieh.


Mike MyattMike Myatt, is a Top CEO Coach, author of “Leadership Matters…The CEO Survival Manual“, and Managing Director of N2Growth.

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