Culture is Concrete, Not Marshmallow

There is a book titled Culture Eats Strategy for Lunch, by Curt W. Coffman and Kathie Sorensen, Ph.D. The title makes corporate culture sound important, strong, high-impact. Yet in far too many places, building corporate culture is considered a “soft skill.” Squishy, hard to pin down, outright marshmallow material.

So which is it? Is culture something concrete, we can touch and see and measure? Or is it a squishy soft skill that is difficult to see or find its impact? It can’t be both.

I’m happy to put a stake in the ground on this topic. Culture is concrete, not squishy. And all of you that call culture-building a “soft” skill in leadership, cannot have ever tried this. Culture-building is the leadership equivalent of an extreme sport—imagine summiting Mt. Everest and you might be close.

Here’s why.

Deeply held, widely shared values are built over a long period of time. Hurrying won’t help.

There is nothing fast about building culture. There are no shortcuts to building culture. To all leaders in a hurry to make a name for yourself with a strong culture—best of luck. Your “hurry up” lecture won’t work on culture. A leader who plans to build a strong culture in organization, plan to stay put and work hard at it—for a very long time. Years, to be clear.

Culture requires investment. Yes, I mean money. 

Imagine building a new technology capability for your company with zero investment dollars. Crazy? It is equally crazy to think you can build the people capability of the company with zero investment. My friend Colleen Barrett, former CEO of Southwest Airlines, says, “If there is no line item in your annual plan for culture—you aren’t building one.” So if that leads you to ask, “What do I spend money on to build culture?” it is simple—spend it teaching, coaching, and growing capability around the culture traits you need for success (i.e., collaboration, coaching, running great meetings, talking through tough topics, etc.). Whatever you need your people to do with excellence, you must inspire, train, and follow-up regularly. To expect results without investment is to predict that you will certainly fail.

Culture begins with this belief: “how” we work together is more important than “what” we do.

Now you think I have lost my marbles. But hang with me. This statement is true. One of my bosses in my early career used to tell me that “a mediocre idea executed brilliantly wins every time.” I would argue with him—defending the importance of a brilliant idea—and entirely miss his point. For you see . . . a brilliant idea that never happens isn’t all that brilliant!  Similarly, if your team does not work together brilliantly, there is not a chance that you will execute the work brilliantly. It’s impossible to overcome the dysfunctional dynamic of terrible teamwork. Need I say more?

This is how you drive superior performance by serving others.

It is slow, hard, costly work. And it delivers phenomenal results.

Cheryl Bachelder is the former CEO of Popeyes Louisiana Kitchen, Inc. and the author of Dare to Serve: How to drive superior results by serving others.  She is a legend in the restaurant industry for her nine-year leadership of Popeyes, delivering industry leading results through the lens of servant leadership.

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