What do Starbucks, Zappos, Southwest Airlines, Dropbox, and Twitter all have in common? Each has a distinct corporate culture that infuses everything it does, from marketing to hiring practices to strategic decision making.
If you’re familiar with the system we present in our book Mastering the Cube, you’ll recall that Leadership and Culture is one of the six sides of the multifaceted organization. As is the case with a Rubik’s Cube, if any one facet of the organization — including culture — is out of alignment with the enterprise strategy, sustainable enhancements to organizational performance will be impossible.
Culture, as we define it, “includes the shared assumptions, beliefs, behaviors, and norms of the workforce” (Mastering the Cube, Chapter 1). If culture is not deliberately nurtured, it takes on a life of its own, in the same way that a garden can become overrun with weeds if it’s not maintained regularly.
The Costs of a Misaligned Culture
Visit any business news site and you’ll find at least one example of a dire misstep that can be traced back to an organization’s misaligned culture. When culture falls out of alignment with strategy, leaders can be faced with consequences that reach both wide and deep, including the following:
- Lack of clear mission: A strong culture aligned with strategy gives employees a clear sense of mission in everything they do and every decision they make. When culture falls out of alignment, that sense of mission can be lost, and employees may resort to doing what’s best for themselves.
- Employee confusion: When employees see a disconnect between the values their leaders espouse and the behaviors being rewarded in their day-to-day work life, they can feel that their efforts are out of sync with the goals of the organization. For example, an organization may “preach” teamwork but base its performance reviews on individual achievement, sending mixed signals to employees about how to act and perform.
- Lack of integrity: When culture is aligned with strategy, an organization’s inner workings are consistent with its outward persona. When alignment slips, day-to-day operations may fail to sync with that public image, causing the organization to be seen as hypocritical.
- Turnover: Without a well-aligned culture, inspiring loyalty among employees at all levels — from the C-suite to the mailroom — can be difficult if not impossible. When employees are missing a strong sense of belonging to something greater than themselves, they are more likely to look elsewhere for more fulfilling opportunities.
3 Keys to Bringing Culture Back in Alignment
If you’re seeing one or more of the above warning signs, your culture may be out of alignment with your organizational strategy. To start bringing your culture back in line, take a close look at these three key areas:
- People: Look at the employees your organization is hiring and promoting, and ask yourself if they represent a culture that aligns with your organization’s purpose and strategies. For example, if teamwork is an important part of your strategy, but your organization is full of “lone wolves,” you may want to re-examine your hiring and promotion practices.
- Systems: Ask yourself if your organizational systems are helping or hindering your efforts to align your culture. For example, I once came across an organization that cited trust as one of its primary values … yet its expense systems prevented most of its senior executives from approving expenditures over $100,000.
- Communications: Look at how your leaders are communicating with your people — the words they use, the principles they talk about, the events and milestones they commemorate — and ask yourself if those communications reinforce a culture that aligns with your strategy.
There’s a reason why companies such as Starbucks and Zappos come up so often when we talk about stellar examples of corporate culture. The leaders of these organizations have made a commitment to aligning their cultures with their strategies, and they reinforce that commitment in the organizational choices they make. By embodying the same level of dedication to alignment, organizations can overcome cultural hurdles and forge ahead in enhancing organizational performance.