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Strategy vs. Culture: And the Winner Is...

CEO Insights

Being a second-time CEO brings a unique perspective on leadership. You quickly realize that, no matter how distinct two organizations may seem, there are some “universal truths” that apply across the board.

Maybe the most important lesson I’ve learned transcending corporate borders involves the balance between strategy and culture.

A clear, well defined strategy is crucial to unify employees and drive performance. A corporate culture is also incredibly powerful…maybe more so…though not always in a productive way.

A winning culture can elevate a strategy to untold heights. But at the other extreme, even the sharpest strategy is vulnerable to a resistant culture. And when you pit strategy versus culture in a corporate wrestling match, you better believe that culture will trounce strategy every time. No contest.

To put it bluntly: Culture eats strategy for lunch (breakfast and dinner, too, I would add!). Peter Drucker often gets credit for coining that maxim, and it’s a powerful sentiment: The habits, mindsets and biases of a deeply ingrained corporate culture can throw up all manner of roadblocks to even the most dynamic, compelling business strategy.

The answer is not to compromise strategy. It’s to shift the culture to better reflect the current and future realities of doing business.

The answer is not to compromise strategy. It’s to shift the culture to better reflect the current and future realities of doing business.

Early last year, during my onboarding as Baxter’s CEO, I worked with my team to recast our strategy for a new era. Just as critically, we identified the cultural values necessary for this strategy to succeed: Compassion for Patients…Collaborate and Play to Win…Courage to Fail Fast and Forward…and more. Some echoed long-familiar Baxter principles, while others were intended to inject greater speed, urgency and accountability in pursuit of our fundamental mission: save and sustain lives.

Evolving a culture is not as simple as capturing new values on a flipchart. But it has to start at the top…and then get reinforced with dogged persistence at all levels of the organization. It’s the only way to ensure that strategy and culture work in tandem to drive results for your stakeholders, including creating a “Best Place to Work” for your employees.

 

—Joe Almeida, Chairman and CEO