Culture eats strategy for lunch… and it will eat leaders too

Posted January 12, 2011 in Latest News & Insights

I first read the saying “culture eats strategy for lunch” when I stumbled upon Curt Coffman’s website (he’s the oft forgotten co-author of one of my favourite books First Break All the Rules with the more visible Marcus Buckingham). Anyway, it’s a great saying and, in my experience, completely accurate. Most companies will get hobbled, not because they’re strategy’s off, but rather the corporate culture is working against it. Recently I’ve been thinking about how culture can eat leaders for lunch too.

“Cultural fit” is one of those nebulous ideas that’s hard to screen for in job interviews but seems to become screamingly evident when people show up on the job. In my experience and observation, you can’t underestimate the power of “cultural fit” – both good and bad – on an organization and on your own career.

We’ve all seen the upside to a great fit. The person seems to slide into the organization like they’ve always been there. You find yourself saying things like “wow! It’s only been three months… it feels like you’ve been here forever!”

On the other end of the stick, when the cultural fit is bad, every moment the person is on the job feels painful. Everything feels harder, more difficult and you may find yourself thinking “this shouldn’t be taking me so much time to work with Billy Bob on this issue.”

Whether or not you “fit” a particular culture has nothing to do with your intellect or ability to do the job. It’s how you’re going about doing the job.

Case in point: I once hired someone who was a terrific person into our highly entrepreneurial fast-paced consulting firm. She came from the municipal government where she had worked in a department that, according to her, operated at a brutally slow pace (hence, why she wanted to get out). She really wanted to go somewhere that energetic and always on the go. Unfortunately, when she joined our team, her idea of a fast pace and our own were two very different things (think snail vs. jet plane). Despite feedback and coaching, she just couldn’t pick it up and left her colleagues feeling like she was slacking off and “didn’t care”. The constant barrage of feedback began to undermine her confidence and make her miserable on the job. Bottomline: great person, but a bad “cultural fit” for our team. Ultimately we let her go.

Poor cultural fit can completely derail your career if you’re not careful…especially in your mid-career. It’s important to understand what type of culture you can be successful in and be vigilant about finding one that fits your style and approach. I’ve never seen a “poor fit” leader take on an existing organizations culture and win. That’s one battle that’s just not worth fighting. Better to head somewhere where your talents and contribution will be appreciated.

Happy leading!

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