Company Culture: How Definable Is It?

 Michael D. Moberly   June 28, 2012

“Culture eats strategy for breakfast,” is a phrase widely attributed to Peter Drucker, which I understand was framed and hung on the wall of FMC’s so-called ‘war room’.

The phrase itself, was elevated in prominence in 2006 by Mark Fields, Ford Motor Company’s President of the America’s who has been credited with initiating a culture change at Ford.   

A dominant task Field engaged in at Ford was to replace a culture (work environment) that had come to be routinely characterized with terms such as bitterness, distrust, fear, and betrayal, etc., to a culture that came to be characterized with quite different terms such as creativity, innovation, and (employee) sense of responsibility.

Readers familiar with the American auto industry however, surely understand that the culture reversal that took place at Ford, under Field’s tutelage, or any U.S.-based automaker for that matter, is often fragile and linked to collective bargaining agreements. 

There is certainly no intent here to minimize Mr. Fields efforts as I’m confident his presence and advocacy served as both impetus and rallying point to achieve the culture change objective.  But perhaps it’s prudent to recognize that large scale (enterprise wide) culture changes are seldom the product of a single individual’s efforts, i.e.,

no matter how far reaching one’s vision or how brilliant one’s strategy, neither can be realized if they haven’t evolved from and are supported by a receptive and like-minded company culture.!

Realistically, Ford, like other U.S. carmakers at the time were approaching their own respective ‘fiscal cliffs’ which no doubt served to bring about a greater than usual sense of receptivity and urgency to accept change.  Recognizing that if substantial (cultural) change was not forthcoming and in fairly rapid order, those fiscal cliffs would be more than metaphors, they would, in many experts’ view, materialize as irreversible catastrophes to the U.S. auto industry as a whole.

Company culture defined…Like a former U.S. Supreme Court Justice remarked regarding a landmark pornography decision, which I now paraphrase, ‘I don’t know precisely how to define it, but I know it when I see it’.   That’s quite similar to the way that company culture is often characterized, e.g., as somewhat of an invisible (intangible) temperament and/or attitude that links companies, employees, and stakeholders together.

More importantly though I believe, is company culture being characterized as an ‘internal version of a company brand’ because it encompasses a company’s mission, vision, and values.

Grant McCracken is one, among several prominent ‘company culture advocates’ today who clearly understands how an effective (company) culture can impact a business, e.g., “culture is a company’s last mile” as McCracken is often quoted.  McCracken specializes, he says, in the intersection of commerce and culture where company culture sits at the intersection of anthropology and economics.

All in all, McCracken paints a very seductive picture about company cultures and makes a compelling case that culture may well be marketing’s next silver bullet.

But, myself, along with many of my intangible asset advocate colleagues, have long understood, presumably like McCracken, that a well designed, honed, and monitored (company) culture can produce – deliver what I refer to as ‘contributory value’ to many different aspects, venues, and transactions a company routinely engages.  In other words, culture can become an extraordinarily valuable (intangible) asset that can benefit a company in many ways, particularly in the marketplace.

We recognize that any initiative, sometimes regardless of the motivation, to develop – instill a sustainable (company) culture change will inevitably incur various challenges and hurdles, not the least of which are positively re-directing long embedded beliefs and back-channel habits

some of which will be of such significance and duration that the probability for failure will be substantially elevated. 

This is especially significant when company leadership lacks, for starters…

  • a clear understanding of their company’s intangible assets, of which company culture is one
  • a strategic appreciation for the implications that a culture change will, in most instances, bring to a business, i.e., employees, management teams, c-suites, boards, stakeholders, and a company’s overall perception in its market space, and
  • tested strategies at the ready to leverage, exploit, and/or market a culture change once it has been achieved, to benefit a company.
  • the ability to promote its own culture internally will likely experience a hard time promoting and defining its brand externally

Another unfortunate reality is that some of the skill sets expected of management teams, c-suites, and boards today related to company success, sustainability and profitability, are not necessarily skills that coincide with initiating, valuing, managing, and monitoring changes in company culture .

While visiting  my blog, you are respectfully encouraged to browse other topics/subjects of interest.  Should you find particular topics of interest or relevant to your circumstance,  I would welcome your inquiry or comment at  314-440-3593 or [email protected]


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