Culture Eats Strategy for Breakfast

In last week’s post, I expressed gratitude that some hard lessons learned early in my career informed me how to build a caring culture at The Blum Firm. My mission was to create a firm where every team member could thrive, and no one would dread coming to the office. We spend most of our waking hours at work. It needs to be a positive experience.

I shared the journey of my connection with Ed Copley, who grew from being my once feared boss at a big law firm to now being my beloved colleague and Senior Counsel here at The Blum Firm. In discussing that miraculous evolution with my best friend Talmage Boston, I gained some powerful insights. Talmage had run into Ed recently and they talked about how happy Ed is at The Blum Firm and how close Ed and I have become. Talmage credits the environment at The Blum Firm for creating an atmosphere where co-workers can bond and find career satisfaction: “In our personal lives, relationships are everything. In the workplace, culture is everything.”

Talmage followed up that wisdom with a quote from Peter Drucker I’d often heard but never fully understood: “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.” Jacob Engel, in an article for Forbes Coaches Council, enlightened me. “Culture is the secret sauce that keeps employees motivated and clients happy.” Engel uses two stories to illustrate his point.

1. Everyone at Nathan’s security services business had a can-do attitude. Leaders modeled humility, confidence, and integrity. The company’s culture included:

  • Caring about each other and their customers.
  • Empowering everyone to do their best.
  • Striving for feedback, collaboration, and diversity.
  • Reaching for the stars without fear of failing, and if you fail, “at least you will land on the moon.”

It’s no wonder that Nathan’s team gave their all, and his business prospered. “It wasn’t empty talk or something nice on the wall. They knew that the company’s culture was the secret sauce behind their success, and they religiously followed it.”

2. In contrast, Charles put emphasis on processes rather than culture. Instead of caring about each other, there was constant infighting. No one took responsibility for failures. “Culture starts at the top, and as long as the leaders were finding excuses for nonperformance, everyone else did the same.” Is it any wonder Charles’ business was suffering? Processes and strategy, unsupported by a strong culture, will not sustain a business.

Moreover, creating that culture starts at the top. I continually strive to strengthen our culture at The Blum Firm. I’ve been told that even the simple things like my morning walk-arounds to greet each person one by one makes a difference in their day. So do our monthly birthday celebrations and Wednesday lunches. Building a strong culture requires constant care and feeding, and we can always improve. I’ll keep working at it forever.

Culture “eating” strategy signifies that culture is paramount, and it gobbles up processes, rules, and strategic plans for breakfast. Structures are important, but they take a back seat to culture. Putting primary emphasis on strategy and prioritizing it over people (such as adopting a new strategic plan and pushing out good people) destroys culture, which in turn destroys a business. Reacting to my post “It Takes a Team,” attorney Zachary Oliva summed it up: “Culture drives everything!”

As I learned from my mentor Tom Rogerson of GenLegCo., culture drives the success of a business, but it also drives the success of a family. These same principles, modeled by a family’s leaders, can build a strong family culture. Elaborate estate plans with trusts and entities are important, but for a family to succeed and prosper from generation to generation, those strategies must be built on a solid family culture foundation.

Strong core values, caring about each other, celebrating each person’s strengths, honest feedback, encouraging and empowering one another, modeling good behavior—those are the building blocks for a rock-solid culture, essential to sustaining both a business and a family.

Marvin E. Blum

Join Marvin Blum in intentionally creating a strong culture for your business (and your family).