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Why culture is more important than strategy

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I put forward this argument: culture – the psychology, actions and beliefs of a group of people – is more important than strategy.

I believe there are two definitions of the kind of culture that creates momentum for any business. The first one is that culture is “what happens when the CEO leaves the room”. The second definition is “the way we get things done around here”. It’s all about the attitude of those working for your company. 

The most important thing about culture is that it’s the only sustainable point of difference for any organisation. Anyone can copy your strategy, but nobody can copy your culture. So, why would you leave it untended?

The best businesses are the ones whose culture has grown bigger and stronger than any individual in the team. A strong culture gains power through inspiring your people to conform to it. 

In employing new talent, you have to be discerning in what you’re looking for. Take attitude over skills any time. Hire for attitude, train for skills. It’s more beneficial to hire someone with the right mindset who will fit in with the culture of your company, than someone with strong skills and great experience, but the wrong attitude.

Could the bank have gone wrong because they were far too focused on individual success, rather than a team-based culture? They’ve become too profit-centric and far less customer-centric. If people weren’t already aware of the importance of culture, then the Barclays and HSBC situation has certainly brought it to light. Companies should be performance-driven and values-led – most banks forgot their values.

No industry is exempt from the importance of culture, which is a key part of a brand’s reputation. The selling off of Lloyds’ 632 branches to the Co-operative Bank may well prove this: Co-op stands for values. 

Virgin Money’s acquisition of Northern Rock will again bring their values to the fore.Are we starting to see the shift? If you ask people the question, “Who would you want to bank with, Lloyds bank or Google?” they would choose Google. If you said, “Royal Bank of Scotland or Apple?” they would choose Apple.

We are going to see some interesting collaborations in the future, where the front end might be a supermarket and the back end a commercial bank. But it will take many years for the banks to lose the stigma of the last five years. The biggest shift we’re seeing is from product-centricity to customer-centricity. Companies that just push products will wither away; those with clear values will win.

The rise of the discerning customer and the fragmentation of the media have made culture even more important. Anyone with a mobile phone and internet connection is now effectively a member of the paparazzi.

The messages individuals and consumers are exposed to have changed. Before, if one customer was really upset with your product or your service they would write you a letter – that kind of complaint was containable. One tweet, however, can easily hit 100,000 people. You can no longer simply say, “Oh we’ll deal with that next week.” Businesses must now wear their hearts on their sleeves and demonstrate their values openly and honestly.

The culture of a company relies on there being a clear set of values, strong leadership and a sense of transparency and honesty between the company and the public. These factors will be the ones that differentiate your company in times of austerity and increased competition. 

Strategy is, of course, important, but this must be accompanied by a strong culture if lasting success is to be won. To become truly durable, your company must inspire every single one of your people and win a place in the hearts of the public. By far the best way to achieve this is through culture.

René Carayol is chairman of Inspired Thinking Group (ITG), a marketing services provider. 

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