Aligning Culture with Strategy to Drive Performance

Aligning Culture with Strategy to Drive Performance

In a previous article we explored the definition of culture and why it’s important in organizational performance and success. While I favor the simplicity of McKinsey’s definition, “how we do things around here”, culture encompasses a wide range of beliefs, practices and values. We also learned that culture plays a huge part in the alignment of talent strategies with business goals and that a powerful culture differentiates the best companies from the rest by driving great performance, enabling teams and individuals to realize their potential.

Defining and positively influencing culture in order to drive business strategy remains an opportunity with many organizations. But how best to do so? Here are a few possibilities.

In an ERE article entitled 5 Steps to Align Culture to Get Your Employee’s Strategic Buy-In by Derek Irvine, the author recommends this process:

Redefine the culture attributes into actionable core values. (Information Sharing, Teamwork, Customer Focus, Leadership, Decision Making, Taking Action)

Define behaviors associated with each of those core values. (Teamwork behaviors: Committed to common goals, active participation and leadership, open communication up and down the chain, willing sharing of resources)

Frequently and very specifically recognize any and all employees who demonstrate those behaviors by calling out clearly the core value demonstrated and explaining how those behaviors impacted you, the team, the customer or the company for the better. (Sam, you really lived our value of Teamwork when you went out of your way to locate the necessary research materials needed to move the Juno project forward. You didn’t have the information yourself, but you knew who did and how to get that information in the right hands. By doing so quickly and without prompting or direction, you helped us beat project deadlines, thrilling our client and making them a partner for years to come.)

Share that recognition across the organization so it can serve as training for others on what desirable “Teamwork” behaviors look like in the daily work, encouraging others to demonstrate similar actions.

Closely monitor, measure and report on areas where values are being more or less recognized to intervene where necessary with additional training or resources to ensure all employees both understand and are committed to achieving the company’s strategy – in their own work, every day.

As an alternative, a MindTools article entitled The Cultural Web Aligning your Organization’s Culture with Strategy describes six interrelated elements of culture called the cultural web (stories, rituals and routines, symbols, organizational structure, control systems and power structures) and suggests a four step process for aligning culture to strategy:

  1. Analyzing Culture as It Is Now

Start by looking at each element separately, and asking yourself questions that help you determine the dominant factors in each element.

  1. Analyzing Culture as You Want it to Be

With the picture of your current cultural web complete, now’s the time to repeat the process, thinking about the culture that you want.
Starting from your organization’s strategy, think about how you want the organization’s culture to look, if everything were to be correctly aligned, and if you were to have the ideal corporate culture.

  1. Mapping the Differences Between the Two

Now compare your two Cultural Web diagrams, and identify the differences between the two. Considering the organization’s strategic aims and objectives:

What cultural strengths have been highlighted by your analysis of the current culture?

What factors are hindering your strategy or are misaligned with one another?

What factors are detrimental to the health and productivity of your workplace?

What factors will you encourage and reinforce?

Which factors do you need to change?

What new beliefs and behaviors do you need to promote?

  1. Prioritize Changes, and Develop a Plan to Address Them

Performance management is a hot topic in HR, and will continue to be a major focus for organizations. By creating an organization that is built for performance, and developing a culture that supports and drives that performance, HR has an opportunity to make a very positive strategic contribution. These two options for aligning culture with business strategy may help do just that.


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Organizational Culture – What is it and Why is it Important?

Organizational Culture – What is it and Why is it Important?

People and culture go together. Every organization has a culture. Culture receives a lot of attention, and is often given credit for an organization’s success (think Google).  Based on some popular slogans, culture is so important that an organizational strategy is not necessary – or am I reading too much into “Culture eats strategy for breakfast”?

Many organizational leaders do a great job explaining what their culture is, why it’s important and how it impacts their performance. I, for one, have more difficulty putting my finger on culture so I set out to learn more about this mysterious concept.

According to Towers Watson, in an article entitled Strategy/Culture Alignment: How to Identify, and Close, Critical Gaps, culture is a word used often, but not always clearly understood. They define it as the shared beliefs (either explicit or implicit) that exist within a company and drive behaviors. That same article provides definitions and proposed strategic vision statements for five common business strategies, and describes cultural attributes that may support those strategies.

In a recent article by Jennifer Pellet entitled Building Leaders Who Build the Future: Aligning Talent Strategies with Business Goals, Pellet quotes a PWC Strategy & People principal, Rutger von Post, who defines culture as an organization’s self-perpetuating pattern of behaviors, thoughts, feelings, mindsets and beliefs and suggests identifying and leveraging those patterns. Von Post goes on to say that No culture is all good or all bad—every culture has strengths and weaknesses.

A classic McKinsey originated phrase to describe culture is “how we do things around here”. Now that I understand.

Pellet’s article claims that culture plays a huge part in the alignment of talent strategies with business goals. That notion is supported in a Hay Group presentation which asserts that a powerful culture differentiates the best companies from the rest by driving great performance, enabling teams and individuals to realize their strategy and their own potential.

If that’s all true, and I believe it is, then defining and positively influencing culture in order to drive business strategy makes tremendous sense. Yet in a 2015 PWC CEO survey, 75% of respondents reported that culture is as important or more important than strategy to a company’s success while less than 50% felt that it was an item on management’s agenda or that the organization was capably and proactively managing it.

This looks to be another opportunity for HR professionals to make a strategic contribution. How?  By proactively influencing and aligning culture to business strategy. I’ll provide recommendations on how to do so in our next article.


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Free Hiring Advice for the Cleveland Browns

Free Hiring Advice for the Cleveland Browns

As a long suffering Browns fan and executive recruiter, I am as frustrated with the current situation as anyone else. Time for a new GM and a new Head Coach. My business partner is a football coach for a local high school and knows infinitely more about football and coaching than I do. So my free advice is worth every penny.

That said, looking from the outside in, seems like the Browns may have hired a few coaches who never had a chance to succeed. Are the Browns in such a bad situation that they can’t attract a top notch coach? Perhaps a performance-based job description will help. Let’s try this on for size:

Guaranteed Selection to Pro Football Hall of Fame
NFL Head Coach – Cleveland Browns

We are a storied franchise in the NFL and are in a turnaround situation. When you succeed in this role, your next stop will be just down the road – in Canton!


This role will report directly to the owner, who is totally committed to bringing a championship to Cleveland. During the first year the owner will rely on you to:

  • Start the journey toward excellence by setting the tone for unwavering work ethic and team-first commitment to winning.
  • Create, develop and implement talent programs and practices to support and enhance the results-oriented culture, as well as drive results – wins!
  • Integrate into the senior management team and weigh-in on all strategic decisions, including instilling a championship culture for the entire organization.
  • Improve quality and performance in recruitment, succession planning, training, player relations and culture development.

Beyond year one we will work with you to set goals and milestones to put us – and keep us – on track for a Super Bowl win by 2020.

Candidate Profile

Your football coaching experience is essential for this role, as well as documented success leading a winning team and building a sustainable, winning culture. We will look for additional evidence of your accomplishments and fit which may include professional football experience as a player, major college head coaching experience and an unquenchable desire to win!


This looks like a lot – and it is. This is a key role and will provide a career capstone opportunity. The compensation and other incentives will reflect the level of the role and contribution level sought including a generous base salary and bonuses tied to reaching goals.

In addition, the successful candidate will win the hearts and adoration of a football crazed fan-base that extends around the world! Pull this off and the H.O.F. is a shoe-in.


If you envision yourself succeeding with these goals, have the background we seek and are open to a new challenge, we should talk. If your commitment and desire is for anything less than a championship, no need to inquire.


Jimmy Haslam doesn’t know me from Adam, and has already hired a search firm to help him with the process so I will not sit by the phone waiting for his call. Even so, I can only hope the Browns will find a coach who has a much better chance to succeed.


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Are You Protecting Your Most Important Assets?

Are You Protecting Your Most Important Assets?

Conventional wisdom (and the politically correct CEO) says that people are our most valued asset. Unlike inventories, property, plant and equipment, though, people walk out of our workplace at the end of each day. In addition, our best people are actively recruited by our competitors (think how frequently, not if your top talent is being actively recruited). How can we protect our investment in our people? Should we treat all our employees in the same manner, or should our most talented contributors receive special treatment? Is this an HR-only issue?

If you are unsure how to think about these questions, I recommend taking an approach that I learned from an IT Security Risk Analyst. Not long ago I attended a Financial Executives International (FEI) meeting where one of the speakers was Richard Clarke, CEO of Good Harbor Security Risk Management. Mr. Clarke is a renowned consultant and speaker who was part of a team of advisors to President Obama regarding the NSA data breach.

In his presentation, Mr. Clarke discussed the NSA breach as well as Target Corporation’s stolen credit card information breach. He described the events that led to the data breaches, and prescribed an approach and methodology that can help us avoid the same fate. Here are the basic steps he suggested:

1. Identify your “Crown Jewels”
2. Determine your Worst Case Scenario
3. Develop a Breach Plan
4. Create a Long Term Protection Plan

For data protection purposes, the four steps focused on the most sensitive and important data of an organization. From a talent perspective, the four steps apply to top talent.

Bill Gates used to say that there were a handful of people at Microsoft who “made” the company, and if they left there would be no Microsoft. Step one, identify your Crown Jewels, is all about identifying those people who are essential to your continued success. Who are these people in your company?

The next step is the scariest. In his presentation to the FEI, Richard Clarke said he watched the Congressional hearing where Target’s CEO was asked to explain what happened and how their data breach occurred. The chagrined CEO told Congress that he never imagined the breach would take place. This step is about doing just that – imagine what will happen if your top talent leaves, or worse, goes into competition and takes your best people and customers.

As frightening as the worst case scenario can be, developing a breach plan can help you get back to sleep at night. This step is all about damage control following data breaches. For a talent plan, though, it is more about what we can do to try to keep our talent, as well as planning for how to replace them if they do leave. A combination of engagement, recognition and rewards to retain, and cross training and succession planning to replace may be in order.

Step four, the long range plan, is the comprehensive talent management strategy you have in place to identify, attract, hire, develop and retain your top talent. Does your company have a comprehensive talent strategy? If so, is it working – do you have the talent in place and in the pipeline to help you reach your strategic goals? If the answer to these questions is anything but a resounding YES, then what is stopping you? Time, focus, budget?

Richard Clarke pointed out that the Target data breach was estimated to cost the company over $3 billion in lost revenues, recovery expenses and lawsuit settlements. Yet, prior to the breach, he believes it is likely that the company (most companies) would have scoffed at the idea of investing, say, $100M to upgrade their IT security protocols in order to prevent such a breach. If only they could go back in time to make that decision.


For help protecting your most valued asset, please contact us.

Originally published on February 24, 2014


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