Culture is more important than a good strategy

Without a good culture you won't have a chance at long-term success, says MediaCom's chief transformation officer.

In 2016 I was introduced to the chief executive of a manufacturing company as a strategy head. "Ahh," he said, "you know Sue, don’t you, that culture eats strategy for breakfast". 

"Indeed," I answered, "but the strategy is to have a good culture".

Without a good culture you can have all the strategy, talent and leading edge product in the world, but you won’t have a chance at long term, or even medium term success. 

Here are three reasons why: 

First, there will be no real diversity or inclusion. If you have to fit in to a prevailing sameness in a business, then too much effort is tied up in this instead of doing good work. This is inevitable if the entire senior management line-up looks and sounds the same. Deep down most people will assume that in order to get promoted you need to mirror the majority look and feel of the current board. So a lack of diversity tends to sustain itself, and we know that diversity drives better decisions, and ultimately better profits.  A good culture ensures that everyone feels that they can be themselves. 

Secondly, without a great culture bad behaviour and incivility can become deep rooted. Here’s where genuine warmth is crucial. It is possible to have a culture where everyone is ruthlessly polite, and even mild swearing is unacceptable. This doesn’t mean that back stabbing and undermining are necessarily eliminated too. Rudeness is never acceptable yet surface politeness is not enough. The intention of the culture must be to get the best out of everyone there, not to create a series Grand National fences where if you don’t make it over Becher’s Brook at the first try no one helps you back into the saddle to try again.   

Having high standards is important; in my view good enough work is never good enough. But the objective must be to help everyone work in the best way that they can, not to create an obstacle course to eliminate people as fast as possible.  

Thirdly, and most crucially, without the right kind of culture you can’t have creative tension and disagreements. Without this, you don’t get great work. If disagreeing leads to put downs or even being taken off a project team, then the need for consensus is probably being valued as more important than getting to a great answer.   

There is obviously a balance to be struck here. With deadlines looming disagreements and diversity of opinions need to happen at the right time and in the right place (i.e. not necessarily publically). However, if they don’t happen at all then you sacrifice great to mediocre. A great culture doesn’t mean no one ever argues. A great culture allows for constructive debate.  

As a final point: life is too short, and you spend too much of it at work, to put up with a culture that isn’t awesome.

Sue Unerman is the chief transformation officer of MediaCom

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