Does culture eat strategy for breakfast? The higher your position, the more likely you are to agree

“Ok culture, time to eat some strategy.”
“Ok culture, time to eat some strategy.”
Image: AP Photo/CEL
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The “culture versus strategy” debate is nearly as old as the light beer ads it resembles: “Tastes Great!/Less Filling!”

And as in those classic ads, each side has had its staunch supporters. In recent years, culture advocates have become thicker on the ground, often asserting the superiority of culture on the authority of something management guru Peter Drucker probably never said—that culture eats strategy for breakfast. Cooler heads have rightly argued that it’s a false choice—strategy and culture must reinforce each other.

In a survey of 11,000 executives we conducted this year, instead of offering respondents an either/or choice, we asked them to indicate where they stood on a continuum between the two poles of the argument: “Strategy is a primary source of competitive advantage” and “Corporate culture is a primary source of competitive advantage.”

The raw average scores for each group fell within a fairly narrow range toward the middle of the scale. In other words, unlike extreme proponents of one pole or the other, most executives see a rough balance between strategy and culture. Nevertheless, there is a marked tilt in favor of culture in the higher levels of the organization, with the numbers moving almost steadily toward culture as you move from individual contributor to CEO.

Why are senior leaders likely to value culture more than executives further down in the organization? Several reasons suggest themselves. First, managers, unlike their superiors, have little opportunity to shape culture and are therefore likely to undervalue it to some degree. Second, as leaders rise higher they gain a more comprehensive view of the organization’s many moving parts and see culture as the means of aligning all those parts around strategy. Third, because more senior leaders manage people who manage other people, they must rely on the culture, rather than direct contact, to ensure constructive interpersonal dynamics throughout their organizations. But whatever the reason, at the higher levels of the organization a greater emphasis on culture seems to come with the territory.

Karen West is the chief innovation officer of HLabs, Heidrick & Struggles’ R&D function. Elliott Stixrud is a consultant and senior director of methods development in HLabs.