Culture Eats Strategy for Breakfast.

Updated: Mar 2

Peer-to-peer coaching

As the manager responsible for 2 manufacturing plants in the 1980s, I developed a style that was very goal and results-oriented. This fitted in with my engineering background and training. As part of an internationally owned group of companies, we were seen by our peers as very progressive and everything was measured in KPI’s. Decisions and actions were taken on the basis of any variances on a daily, weekly and monthly basis. Other signals were ignored or not even noticed.

I took that philosophy into my own Training and Consultancy business and worked off one year, three year and five-year plans, written up in great detail. As part of a group of business consultants we also used the system to help many companies develop and follow their own strategic plans. While this worked up to a point, the beautifully bound strategic plans were often left to gather dust after a few months of initial enthusiasm. When clients were challenged about this drop off in their motivation to carry through their vision, they usually attributed the reason to resistance from both management and staff or if not resistance, then a lack of interest.

Man plans God laughs

One day at a talk given by a very prominent business leader, I first heard the expression that ‘culture eats strategy for breakfast’. I looked it up and discovered that great writer on leadership Peter Drucker first coined the phrase.

I started to reflect on the statement, as the belief behind it resonated with me, and many of the signals I ignored in the past came back to me. It was also around this time that I came across the translation of ancient Yiddish proverb ‘man plans God laughs’.

To back up my own experiences I started to come across research that indicated around 70% of employees are not fully engaged in the company’s vision. Despite the millions invested in leadership and management training, this statistic has not changed much over the past 50 years.

While continuing to work on my tried and trusted approach to success, more and more the Universe kept flashing up signals that there had to be a better way to achieve my vision by developing a different approach to help my clients.

Company is only interested in the numbers

A little over a year ago the members of one of our forums decided to focus their leadership efforts by working on their company’s culture. One participant said the main impetus for his change of attitude resulted from a survey the company completed before embarking on a lean program. A remark in the research that hit home was that the company ‘are only interested in the numbers’. When the staff was asked to further elaborate on how they came to that conclusion, the response was that management was happy once the KPI was achieved and did not have the same interest in finding out what frustrated employees.

The following are a few of the experiences the members recently shared on how they had gone about implementing this new ‘strategy’

People v Profit?

One MD told of a review he had with a manager on their performance when he started to change his approach. The MD believed this manager had great potential but lacked confidence and was not achieving his targets. He asked the manager to put away the file he had brought on the KPI.s his department was responsible for achieving. He said to his manager, ‘I can look at my computer at any time and see the figures your department are producing, instead, I want to know how you are doing in your role and how I can support you’. ‘How are you enjoying or struggling with aspects of your job’. He noticed an immediate relaxing of the manager’s body language and he started to open up to what he loved about the role and what frustrated him.

The MD reported he had a totally different conversation than he previously experienced when going through a normal one to one management meeting. He also reported the manager started to gain more confidence each month they repeated this process and became more effective in tackling difficult challenges he had previously struggled with.

Another forum member told me about spending a few hours doing a review with a particularly brilliant technical manager who was having a lot of relationship problems with other managers. He listened to all his complaints about the company and how other managers were affecting his ability to get results, without making any comments. Then he asked him how things were with his home life. He discovered the manager was under severe stress due to financial pressure he was experiencing as a result of a poorly thought out investment. As the business owner had experienced many similar problems navigating the business through the recession, he was able to make suggestions the manager had never thought about.

As a result the manager visibly relaxed, became more animated and positive and for the remainder of the meeting, they discussed different approaches the manager could use to change the responses he was getting from his peers.

Empathy is a two-edged sword.

The last experience I am going to relate is from a business owner who used to feel relieved to get away from all the negativity that went on at some employee meetings. As a result of reflections from his peers at one of our sessions, he realized he was taking on board the toxic energy that some employees downloaded. He decided to continue listening to people’s problems but not to over empathize and instead engage with the employees on their solutions.

He now refers to donning his ‘anti-toxic raincoat’ before going into a meeting that he knows could be particularly challenging. He has also become adept at leaving the ‘monkeys’ in the room and only gets involved in solutions that the employees would not have the resources or capability to get done.

Employee and business needs are interdependent.

You cannot make others happy, but you can help create the conditions for people to feel the company is more interested in their welfare that they currently experience.

Gradually switch your focus from KPI’s to connecting with the employee as a person, not a resource to be managed or led. This will take even better care of the financial health of the business. Replace the term ‘performance management’ to people's engagement and ‘human resources’ to people or colleagues. Language does impact on our approach.

There is a thin line between being stressed from work pressure or handling a difficult new task/ deadline to being stressed from boredom or a perceived lack of appreciation. Employees do positively respond to new challenges. When they are involved in deciding how that change is implemented. We all like to have more control over our lives.

Money is rarely the answer to motivation and has a short term effect.

Don’t throw out the baby with the bathwater, employees do prefer to work for a company that is more successful than one that is struggling, as it meets their basic needs for security. The goal is to see employee needs and business needs as interdependent.

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