In Startups, Culture Eats Strategy for Breakfast

Writer, teacher and business visionary Peter Drucker once pointed out that, “Company cultures are like country cultures. Never try to change one. Try, instead, to work with what you've got.”

I’ve worked in places with toxic cultures and top-notch cultures. And I’ve learned that the difference between the two comes down to the people. Sounds easy, right? Keep reading.

It's Gotta be Real.

Culture isn’t something a startup can simply create by declaring, “Hey, we’re going to have a great culture!” It has to be authentic. It should be a core organizational investment, and ultimately, it is everyone’s responsibility.

Employees who passively reap the benefits of a wonderful culture without contributing or participating are not in it for the long term, and leadership that merely observes culture from the sidelines is missing a golden opportunity.

The Conundrum: Strategy or Culture?

A startup is always strapped for resources. The feeling I had while working at my first startup was one of “we’re in it together.” I was young, and I was excited by the energy and the opportunity to work on something bigger than me. Startup life also meant late nights and weekends for almost everyone involved, from tech support (me) and the receptionist at the front desk (also me) all the way to the CEO.

But we were all working toward a common goal and it felt exhilarating. “Blood, sweat and tears” was a common phrase offered during interviews. In addition to the founding team, every new hire knew the company’s mission, core values and what we were signing on for from day one.

That was my front desk view anyway, and perhaps naïve.

At the executive level, there are important decisions to be made every day in the interest of the business, around things like go-to-market, revenues and the bottom line. But most of us don’t operate in one mode like that. There are people decisions to make, too, and they’re just as important.

People decisions go beyond HR. These are the kinds of decisions that impact culture, such as: flexible work, vacation policies, staffing, hiring and retention strategies, healthcare, new parent leave, hiring for a job vs. hiring for culture fit, and so on. And this last one – hiring for skills over culture fit – can prove tricky at times.

This brings up a core question that every startup will face at one point or another: Is culture or strategy more important?

Is there a point when it makes sense for strategy to take a back seat to culture?

For most startups, this question can be a tug-of-war that intensifies as a business and headcount grows, and it will come down to prioritizing culture or business strategy. 

To quote Peter Drucker again, “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.” Strategy guides decisions and overall forward momentum, but for building a business, many modern leaders self-select squarely into the culture-first camp, sometimes because of their own personal experiences with toxicity in the workplace.

Three Ingredients to a “Great” Culture

What does culture even mean?

Many are confused about the meaning of culture. Culture was actually “word of the year” in 2014 (who knew?) – so named by Merriam-Webster because it was the single most looked up word in that year. I found this older but very relevant article from The New Yorker on the meaning of culture, not only from a business point of view, but also human and societal as well.

I loved this excerpt:

The wish is that a group of people might discover, together, a good way of life; that their good way of life might express itself in their habits, institutions, and activities; and that those, in turn, might help individuals flourish in their own ways.

Isn’t that really what most of us want in our life and our work? A good life, surrounded by good people, and with opportunities for individual growth and success.

Also pay attention to the word “discover” in there. You can’t force culture. You live it. Lead by example. Embrace its ideals. And make sure the rest of your team cares about contributing to the culture, and not just taking advantage of the people and the perks.

I like the idea put forward by George Mulhern in this leadership blog that it isn’t enough to throw core values up on a slide or plaster them around the office and expect them to stick. You know values are a deeper fit when they’re spoken freely in other contexts. Mulhern said, “If your staff can make a general statement about those values, then you know you’re living your values and it’s not just a sign on the wall.”

I’ve seen three ingredients that help foster greatness in culture.

1. Good people are at the foundation of good culture.

You might hear about companies implementing a “no a**hole” policy. Well, I thought that was a joke when I first heard it, but nope, it’s a thing. Not to mention simple and memorable.

2. A shared mission or vision is important.

But be sure everyone’s actually on board. On the flip side, speak up as an employee if you aren’t digging your company mission. Companies should have a forum to question everything. And take time to invest in that culture whether you’re just starting out in your career, in an executive role, and everywhere in between.

3. A true respect for each other helps get through the hard times.

And there will always be hard times, even in the greatest of cultures. That’s a fact. Within basic respect, diversity, inclusion, tolerance, kindness and transparency must also fall in.

The Bottom Line is Culture Matters

There is much more to say about the cultural pains experienced in our global community and the U.S. today. It’s hard to talk about cultural importance without drawing lines to the larger and very real world issues that we’re facing right now.

These issues showcase the painful breakdown of culture and the societal and personal effects that follow. Yet wherever you stand on the current political or cultural climate, it’s impossible to deny the impact of what happens when people come together for the common good.

But that would be another, much longer and more emotional article.

So yes, I’ve been thinking a lot about culture. And how culture eats strategy for breakfast. Take that to heart. If you’re building something for the long term, and you want it to thrive, consider culture-first.