Culture Eats Strategy for Breakfast

By Bob Shannon

This great title was given to me by Adam Paper, vice president of sales for Myer Emco, who got it from a mentor of his. When asked the key to his success, he replied, “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.” Such a quotation comes only from hard-earned experience and lessons learned. Before we dig deeper into this quote, let’s examine the typical company business model.

A business owner develops a plan that he or she believes will deliver a more superior outcome than that of the competition. Strategies to get there are conceived and then conveyed in memos, conversations, meetings or actions to the staff. Along with the owner, the staff carries out these directives in some manner, and this is how the work gets done.

When a strategy doesn’t meet expectations, for whatever reasons, another one is developed. It becomes the “strategy du jour,” and the cycle is repeated.

Why is this so? The typical entrepreneur is an idea person who loves the process of creating strategic plans; when the plans don’t bring instantaneous results, he or she prefers to go on to the next idea.

An example of this “strategy du jour” syndrome is Dan Snyder, owner of the Washington Redskins. I hate to beat a dead horse, but he just keeps doing the same thing and expecting different results. He is about to hire his seventh new coach in 11 years. The big question is will the next new coach (strategy) be able to survive Mr. Snyder’s apparently anxiety-ridden culture, which has caused strategies to fail so often in the past? Never say never, but…!

What is strategy? A plan of action

Strategy is very important but can succeed only in the culture from which it is being executed. Another way of saying it is that a pizza tastes only as good as its crust!

Adam Paper’s mentor went through these cycles also and realized that there had to be a better way. Business cycles will always be there, and strategies will have to be adjusted or be reinvented to adapt to market conditions. What he learned over the years was that he could not control the market, but he could control how he and his company reacted to market changes. That is where the “culture eats strategy for breakfast” philosophy was born. He decided that his priority would be to focus on the culture (signature practices) of his company so that strategies had a far better chance to succeed.

So what is culture? In its essence it answers the question, “How does the work really get done around here?” It’s the set of values or social practices within a particular activity—in this case, your company.

It speaks to the emotional side of business and establishes basic principles of how the business is run. How you define and nurture your culture results in the difference between drudgery and excitement for the future. As a small-business owner, you have an outsized effect on your company’s culture, unlike leaders of larger companies. Therefore, you are the driver of culture. If you are not comfortable leading in this area, get help.

Be mindful of four things all employees care about:

Does the owner know where we are going?

Does the owner care about us?

Am I needed here?

How are we as a company doing?

*Role Model: Gordon Bethune, CEO, Continental Airlines 1994–2004

“Being good at your job is predicated pretty much on how the people working for you feel,” he says.

“I did a weekly voice mail every week for ten years, a 3- to 5-minute message. Every week I would tell them what was going on. And we had a daily update on our stock price, our on-time performance, who did what to whom in our industry. So the employees knew what was going on. They had direct access to me and the information.

“And we never lied. And if you never lie, then when it hits the fan and somebody says you’re wrong, you can say, ‘No I’m not,’ and they’ll believe you.

“The best compliment I ever heard happened one Christmas. I always went out to the airport on holidays and always made sure that I was there, and I’d thank people for giving up their holiday to work. We’d go down to the break room. I’d always eat down in the break room where the food was being passed out. I went to sit down at the big long table with these two guys and I said, ‘Anybody sitting here?’

“And one of them said to the other, ‘I told you he’d be here. Give me my $10.’ He bet that guy $10 that I’d show up.”  1

Continental went from being ranked last in every measurable performance category to winning more J.D. Power and Associates awards for customer satisfaction than any other airline in the world. BusinessWeek magazine named Bethune one of the top 25 Global Managers in 1996 and 1997. Under his leadership, Continental’s stock price rose from $2 to over $50 per share. Fortune magazine named Continental among the 100 Best Companies to Work For in America for six consecutive years. In Bethune’s final year piloting the airline, Fortune magazine ranked Continental 2004’s No. 1 Most Admired Global Airline, a title it earned again in 2005, 2006, 2007 and 2008. 2

Mr. Bethune created a culture the staff is proud to be a part of, one in which they feel powerful, but more important, a culture that takes courage to bring about. Creating day-to-day operations in which employees feel valued and respected, and have all the tools necessary to succeed while being held accountable, is not an easy task. It is easy to be the nice leader, always giving and being the staff’s friend. Creating an environment of expected excellence and challenging everyone to grow in their roles is another world altogether. It takes focus, clarity of purpose and persistence on the owner’s part to hold people accountable. It doesn’t have to be an either/or situation—you can be nice but also have high expectations and hold all accountable. That’s called respect!

How and what it takes!

“We have no patent on anything we do, and anything we do can be copied by anyone else. But you can’t copy the heart and the soul and the conscience of the company. It’s a great example for other young people about execution and doing things the right way. You don’t have to have a cure for cancer; this is just a basic business.” Howard Schultz, CEO of Starbucks

Being persistent in modeling as many times as possible to your staff and customers the behaviors you want in your employees is what will separate you from the pack. Think of all your interactions as teaching, coaching or branding moments. You will know you have gotten there when your staff can finish your sentences as they relate to your signature practices.

Don’t try to be perfect. Be authentic, because they know when you’re not! Take it one day at a time.  And don’t forget to eat your breakfast!

1. Quotes are from Gordon Bethune’s interview in the New York Times, Business Section, January 3, 2010.

2. “Gordon Bethune Profile, Biography, About“. Retrieved 2008-08-26.

©2010, Robert E. Shannon

Bob Shannon, Owner

First and Main Business Advisors

Coaching that Challenges Your Leadership and Business Skills

Comments are closed.

Photo credit: