Blog 2/12/2015

Culture Eats Strategy for Breakfast by Leslie Juvin-Acker


If there is anything the action sports industry is known for, it’s the culture. It’s a culture that builds a lifestyle around breaking boundaries and taking the unconventional route to the top. While all companies employ basic business principles, it’s a company’s culture that sets it apart and brings its brand spirit to life. Which, for Malakye, leads me to examine why employees make their career decisions based on company culture and how company culture affects the bottom line.

Understanding Culture and Strategy

When examining company culture we need to start by defining the two: Strategy is what directives are put down on paper - what goals and objectives the owners or board of directors proclaims from their proverbial mountain top and what executives carry down for their managers and subordinates to carry out.

Company culture, on the other hand, is the spirit of how the work gets done and how its people behave. They’re the set of values that remind employees what is important, maxims that simply express a rule of conduct, and the ideals that set the tone for every decision that’s made and for every conversation takes place.

Case Study - Losing Culture Through Acquisition

Despite how well meaning companies can be, company culture can get lost in the numbers and, in this case, happened during an acquisition.

In the case of Luke*, he made his exit from a family owned and operated skate company shortly after it was acquired by another brand because of the stark difference in company culture.

He cites his departure from a creative, collaborative culture to playing a numbers game focused only on the end result. Luke says, “We went from asking ourselves, What’s new in skateboarding? to How many units can we sell? and What are other guys doing?”.

Recounting his experience, Luke says how he felt the difference immediately.

We obviously did something right for the company to be bought out. The company was making millions and the employees knew how the company felt about them. Suddenly, employees felt disposable and I couldn’t see myself there anymore. The company was no longer filled by cool people who wanted to make cool shit. (There was) no personality and passion.

Luke goes on to explain why company culture ultimately affects his career decisions:

Employees’ priorities are changing. I’m a family man and I am not going to just quit like that, but I am passionate about what I do and hope that it shows in my craft... company culture drives my career choices… you can feel it in your work environment when the culture becomes stale.  From what I’ve seen, I’m aware of that and I won’t be the type to ride the wave because it’s a nice paycheck.

Syncing Culture and Strategy

Strategy and company culture can and do go hand in hand and when in sync, they drive growth initiatives that are clear, inspire teams to develop products that resonate with their audiences, and originate stories that are relatable. A syncable company culture entices top talent and, even when team members come and go, the spirit remains the same making forward progress possible. Additionally, clear values that establish the foundation of a supportive work environment are reflected in the benefits and perks the company offers.

When culture is dysfunctional, talent performance struggles, products fail to sell, and messages get lost in the noise. Dismal financial figures are proof of these facts. Some companies manage to pull themselves out of their own hot mess and correct the attitudes and behaviors  before it’s too late but most fall by the wayside and into obscurity. 

Asking The Important Questions

Where does one go from here? Good strategy starts by asking better questions and coming up with truthful answers that become part of an endless process of self evaluation. Can you think of your own?

-  Does our culture reflect our values? What are they and how do we employ them?
- What is our maxim? Instead of a wordy and confusing mission statement, think of a short, easy to remember phrase that any employee - from the bottom up - can remember, like ”People before profits.”
- What are our consumers saying about our culture?
- What kind of environment are we creating? Do our benefits and perks reflect our values?
- What is our general attitude in solving problems?  What is the tone of our conversations?  Are we holding ourselves accountable for mixed messages?
- Do our employees know how the company feels about them and how do do they feel about us?

*Note: Confidentiality matters to me. Names have been changed to protect the subject’s identity. Quotes and stories taken from sources for this article are a result of private interviews of industry professionals. Quotes, names, or situations discussed during coaching services are never shared with the public without express permission from clients.