November 9, 2020

Culture Eats Strategy! – The Importance of Organizational Culture

Authored by: Barbara Turley, CEO - The Virtual Hub

Culture eats strategy!  

I’ve heard that said many times and found myself nodding my head in agreement. It’s only now I realise that, while I agreed, I really had no basis for my agreement aside from it sounding like a philosophy I would like to think I subscribed to. Afterall, culture is people (isn’t it?). ‘Culture’ is so hip and current whereas ‘strategy’ feels so 1980’s, complete with brash lipstick and shoulder pads. The corporate raiders of the 1980’s were all about strategy with seemingly little care for the people (or the planet!).

Basically, I was clueless as to how powerful a statement like ‘Culture eats Strategy’ is. Especially when your back is against the culture wall!

Today, having come through the COVID firestorm, I am learning to look deep into every philosophy and statement. I’m learning to look at things more objectively and ask if something is really true … or just a great piece of copy!

In my last post in this ongoing ‘COVID 19 survival series’, I talked about our company’s Purpose and how our participation in Verne Harnish’s Scaling Up program this year shined a very big light on areas like our core values, our purpose and our culture.

organizational culture

Through us doing the Scaling Up “5 Whys” exercise, we updated both the client-centered and employee-centered aspects of our business purpose. It was powerful and it reignited our passion and drive to keep going.

organizational culture

However, purpose is only one element of a company’s core, and a strong company core is the foundation you need to build an effective company culture. But what exactly is a good company culture and why is it important? We needed to take a step back and consider whether or not our purpose and values were 1) truly what we aspired to and 2) were still working for us.

Let’s take a quick look at what we discovered …

organizational culture

The Importance Of Organizational Culture

So, what exactly are we talking about? I think it’s fair to say that most people have a tacit understanding of what a company’s culture is. It’s the atmosphere, the feeling, the vibe you get from the overall people experience in an organization. Everyone “knows” what it is, and most of us have experienced both good and bad - or even great and “toxic” - work cultures.

organizational culture

But despite the fact that a strong organizational culture is viewed as being critical for success and it’s considered to be a common element among the most successful companies, there’s no agreed upon definition of culture!

Why The Core Of The Organization Is Critical To Define

According to the Society for Human Resources Management (SHRM):
“Culture is a nebulous concept and is often an undefined aspect of an organization. Although extensive academic literature exists relating to the topic of organizational culture, there is no generally accepted definition of culture. Instead, the literature expresses many different views as to what organizational culture is.”
organizational culture

Since culture appears to defy explanation, let’s instead consider what it looks like when a company has a good culture. A solid culture is one where employees look forward to work, enthusiasm is sustainable, and the team is happy.

That is, where there’s a great culture, the company runs as a team, not merely a collection of individuals. Also, happy team members are productive and loyal team members. They work harder for your company, tend to do the right thing, and are less likely to leave.

Bottom line: A strong culture makes working more pleasant for you and your team and has a significant impact on your bottom line.

organizational culture

Our Culture Crisis

When I first founded The Virtual Hub, our virtual assistants worked from home, but it didn’t work very well. At least not for us as a company. It was ok until we got to about 30 people and then it became nothing short of a nightmare to manage.

So after 2 years, I invested in office space and equipment and converted from a remote to a co-location model. And I must say, we created a rockin’ culture in the office at The Virtual Hub. We became known for our collaborative, supportive, enthusiastic and fun culture. 

That became a magnet in itself for new hires.

Under the work-from-home beginnings The Virtual Hub was a good business with a good culture, but it became a great business with a great culture as an in-person company. I absolutely believed our culture was strong and resilient enough to withstand a temporary disruption when pandemic driven stay-at-home orders were first issued.

organizational culture

However, in truth, we all got badly blindsided. While we were all head down frantically sorting out logistics and saving the ship from sinking, angst and unhappiness was rising amongst our people. Our culture turned it’s back on us in an instant. At least in part.

Culture Is Like Trust

Although many of us may believe that “everyone” wants to work from home and an internet search for “work from home” will get you 7 billion results, that’s not actually the case.

Many people prefer an office environment to the isolation and loneliness of working at home. Plus, working from home can have drawbacks, such as additional interruptions from family members or roommates and feeling like you’re “at work” 24 hours a day.

Though many, salaried office staff take work home from time to time, work in an office typically has a clear cut-off time, and leaving the office provides a stronger cue that says “done” for the day than closing your laptop and walking into the next room does.

In shifting from the office to remote, literally overnight, we should have better anticipated the culture shock (Thanks Harry Hindsight for that biz tip!). Overnight, the team went from an engaged, dynamic, team-centered, in-person environment to total isolation from one another, with sub par equipment (or just none), cramped and hot work spaces at home and very dodgy internet.

organizational culture

Even though we have all the tech tools needed to stay connected even when we’re apart- chat software, zoom calls, etc. - our day-to-day work environment and processes were completely changed in an instant.

To make matters worse, a lot of our team felt angry or left behind simply because the speed of the move was so intense and chaotic. Those that had no equipment or internet issues had to leave the office last (we’re talking 24-48 hours later here!). Then came the toddler like jealousy as other companies rolled out computers and other payments in the move home. Those losing jobs were simply forgotten.

organizational culture

Within a few weeks, everyone realized this was going to go on for an indeterminate length of time! Everyone wanted a crystal ball and to know definitively what the company was going to do. 

The truth was, we just didn’t know what to say, or do. But we knew we had a major issue. Finally, I broke down in tears as the resignations started and anger mounted.  

Culture is like trust. It takes time to nurture it, but it can unravel in the blink of an eye!

This is the situation we found ourselves in. It has forced us to learn how to develop and strengthen our culture as a remote team. We know many other businesses are finding themselves in the same boat.

organizational culture

"Whatever you’re planning for right now, or whatever your “bootcamp” is, do not miss out on the opportunity to get your team involved."

Adding To Our Cultural Toolkit: Core Values

Once we solidified our new company purpose, giving us our first piece of information about what specifically we’re going to scale, defining our core values was our next step. The core values help to define what the experience of pursuing our purpose together is going to look and feel like.

To create the core values, we involved people throughout the organization. And to determine what would really, accurately reflect what The Virtual Hub is all about, we came up with the values most important to us by completing “a mission.” 

For this exercise, each person had to decide which of their team members they’d take with them on this imaginary mission. That is, we had to select someone who’s the epitome of The Virtual Hub - the individual most associated with doing a great job and having tons of enthusiasm for our work.

The idea was that, in order to be successful on your mission, you’d want to have the most “Virtual Hub-iest” person as your mission partner (Let’s call that your MVP). After we picked our TVH MVP, everyone wrote down the values their MVP embodied, based upon how they behaved in their role.  

Once everyone had picked their MVP and identified the values that individual represented, we all compared notes to find the common denominators. From this information, we were able to distill what’s at the core of THV - our company DNA - into six core values.

Culture In Practice

The best part of doing this exercise with the team was that we not only came up with values we could use to shore up our culture, involving the team in the process was a demonstration of the kind of collaborative culture we want to have! Like we’d build trust, we were building culture by including cross-sections of the people who will benefit from having a strong culture.

Whatever you’re planning for right now, or whatever your “bootcamp” is, do not miss out on the opportunity to get your team involved. As the leader of TVH, this process of “doing” Scaling Up as our bootcamp with other members of my team and including more team members in the activities needed to work through the program has been invaluable.

For one, it took a weight off of my shoulders because I didn’t have to figure out everything on my own. (Have I mentioned my decision and resilience fatigue?!) Also, it’s allowed me to be vulnerable with my team. Not in an uber-personal blubbering mess way! But by showing your team that you don’t have all the answers and that you and they are interdependent, demonstrates your respect for them.

The Value of Shared Leadership

Finally, you’ll find that it’s incredible how team members will show up and step up to lead.

Emerging leaders are born in times like these.

When I revealed that I didn’t know what to do over certain aspects of the business, my team told me, “We know what to do.” And of course they do! They’re the ones with their fingers on the pulse of the operations. I completely trust that they know what to do in areas where I do not.

Empowering them to take the lead and come up with solutions demonstrates my trust for them. Typically, when trust is granted, it’s also earned.

It might feel weird at first to share leadership responsibilities with your team. 

But it’s one of those paradoxes of life, where it feels like one thing but the opposite actually results.

As I explain in my delegation training masterclass (grab it FREE here), business owners are often reluctant to hand off tasks to a virtual assistant or other team member because they feel like they’re losing control over the process.

In reality, delegating lower-level tasks to another person on your team gives you more control over your business because it allows you to spend more time focused on your “genius” work and to have the bandwidth to see the big picture of your company.

Sharing leadership responsibilities with your team will permit you to more quickly adapt as we continue to move through the economic/global issues and anticipate what comes next.

  • What are you doing in your business to share leadership? 
  • What steps can you take to strengthen your organizational culture?

In my next post, I’ll reveal the six values the team came up with, as well as how we are integrating them into the business and our culture.


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