Forum 2018: Analyzing Culture & Strategy

A company’s culture can have a significant impact: According to research from Harvard Business School’s John Kotter, companies with a strong culture have three times more profit per employee and four times faster revenue growth.

With that opening statistic, Forum 2018’s “Culture Eats Strategy: Strategic and Cultural Alignment” examined different types of company culture, how culture impacts day-to-day operations as well as long-term strategic plans, and how a company implements a culture throughout each level of its organizational structure. The session was chaired by Dr. Nona Woolbright of Clemson University and Kevin McLaughlin of Flexo Concepts.

Forum 2018 Culture Eats Strategy Cynthia Sims
Cynthia Sims

Dr. Cynthia Sims, also from Clemson University, opened the session and began her presentation by asking the audience to consider a series of questions, such as: “Do you hire employees based on ‘fit’?” “How often do you ask others what they think?” and “Does your company have written vision/mission, strategy and values, and does anyone follow them?” The questions were meant to help attendees assess what type of work culture they have, and whether that culture is working with their corporate strategies.

If you don’t make values part of your performance mechanism, then you’ll have a much harder time influencing your organization, Cynthia said. “If you only look at bottom-line values, you’ll get bottom-line results.”

Many companies say their employees are their greatest asset, but their organizational strategies and practices often contradict their assertion, Cynthia explained, as she went on to explain the different types of company cultures:

  • Clan: This type has an internal focus, informal governance, and is in general a friendly place to work
  • Adhocracy: This type combines informal governance with an external focus, creating a dynamic and creative place to work where firm members take risks
  • Hierarchy: Like a clan culture, hierarchy also has an internal focus; formal rules and policies are closely followed
  • Market: Has a formal governance structure and an external focus, with an achievement-focused environment

A successful business strategy involves formulation, implementation and alignment, Cynthia said. Creating alignment means people at each level understand the strategy and their role in its implementation. Leaders can’t just open up people’s heads and prescribe a new set of behaviors that must be followed; learning needs to occur at the individual, team and organizational levels.

“A lot of times we see in the media that the workforce is changing—well, it is!” she said, touching on the future workforce, a topic familiar to attendees of Forum 2017 session “The ‘Press Crew’ Crisis.” That group—more educated, 47 percent female, a diverse mix of ethnicities, cultures and religions—is rapidly growing in size. A company’s culture can either attract or repel diversity, and individuals at each level of an organization’s management have the ability to affect how enticing (or deterring) it is.

The next presenters were Rachel Acevedo and Phil Ryan from Flexo Concepts. The pair examined alignment through “spectrum of culture”—leadership, employees, vendors and audience—and how Flexo Concepts retooled its own corporate culture by focusing on each of these four groups.

“Culture isn’t just part of strategy, it’s the foundation of strategy,” Phil said.

Forum 2018 Culture Eats Strategy Phil Ryan
Phil Ryan

At the leadership level, Flexo Concepts began to define company values, and explore expectations, goal setting and communication in 2015 and continued through 2016. This led to an aligned strategy, decentralized production of input, increased trust and improved employee/employer relationships.

At the employee level, the company held meetings, created flyers and documentation, developed a “buddy system” to model its culture and held events. Employee outcomes included improved productivity, clear expectations, guided innovation, and more confidence and trust. “Culture is something to be modeled,” Rachel said.

The pair explained that vendors are the most overlooked part of the culture spectrum, and noted “alignment here is crucial.” As such, Flexo Concepts’ approach was not to control, but to inspire vendors. This led not only to improved relationships with existing vendors but also to the discovery of new vendors with whom the company now does business.

Forum 2018 Culture Eats Strategy Rachel Acevedo
Rachel Acevedo

Lastly at the audience level, Rachel and Phil said it is crucial to first understand that audience—customers, distributors, OEMs, industry partners—to know their values, and then communicate the new corporate culture by showing it to them, through marketing, company tours, at events, etc. Finishing at the other end of the spectrum, Flexo Concepts said it saw unprecedented online engagement, increased referrals, more tradeshow traffic and improved customer loyalty.

“Innovation require flexibility; it’s not easily achieved,” Phil said. “Along the way, we have created some new partnerships.”

They finished the presentation by asking attendees to consider:

  • “Who is in your company’s spectrum of culture?”
  • “Does your culture value or influence what your spectrum values?”
  • “Is your culture aligned through the spectrum?”
Forum 2018 Culture Eats Strategy Tara Halpin
Tara Halpin

Tara Halpin, president of Steinhauser, ended the session with a focus on her own experiences shaping her company’s culture as a leader and with a family-owned business. Steinhauser was her grandfather’s company, and later her father’s—she recalled visiting the plant with her dad when she was young, and seeing him walk around and interact with every employee.

“From a young age before I knew what culture was, I knew that dad’s employees respected him and knew that he cared about them.”

When Tara became company president, and after her father’s death, it became her mission to create an environment where the team is informed about success and the company’s future, and for the company to have a family atmosphere. She saw her role as growing business, strategy, culture and empowering the leaders. By implementing new ideas such as flexibility for employee maternity leave, a special journal in the break room where employees could recognize each other, company picnics and monthly meeting to celebrate successes, Tara said both company morale and profits increased.

“You need to empower your team to take ownership of your culture,” Tara said.

Tara emphasized Steinhauser’s “Culture Plan,” which is: happy people deliver results, mistakes and adversity are the greatest opportunities, and every impression matters.

“Allowing them to be part of the process and then doing what you say you’re going to do—that’s the magic sauce.”