Why ‘Culture Eats Strategy for Breakfast’ is WRONG

People & Culture
Vision & Strategy

At a talk earlier this year, Jim Collins opened by informing us that Peter Drucker was wrong. I’m sure thousands of HR/Culture people had a heart attack on the spot.

But Collins is right. Culture doesn’t eat strategy for breakfast.

Culture IS strategy.

If you’re looking to build a great company with a sustainable, differentiated strategy, culture needs to be part of your plan.

What is Strategy?

Before we dive into why culture is strategy, let’s make sure we have a common understanding of what strategy actually is.

In the generic sense, we can go to Wikipedia:

“A general plan to achieve one or more long-term goals under conditions of uncertainty.”

In the business world, the strategic planning process is about figuring out how you’ll achieve a set of long-term goals with a limited amount of resources.

Harvard professor Michael Porter provides a different thought:

“Strategy is the creation of a unique and valuable position, involving a different set of activities from competitors.”

Basically, it’s finding a way to position yourself different than your competitors.

There are many ways we can differentiate from our customers. We can compete on price, on features, value, innovation, service or dozens of other factors.

No matter your plan, no matter how you want to differentiate yourself, in the end it comes down to one thing:

Do you have the right people and culture to make it happen?

What is corporate culture

Like with strategy, there’s a lot of definitions of culture. Many leaders think culture is a fluffy thing that just happens.

It’s not.

It’s also not a monthly newsletter, or your benefits package, or beer Friday around the foosball table. It’s not the core values plastered across the wall or the motivational posters.

Culture is deeper than any of that. It’s the behaviors that make of the DNA of your company. It’s WHO you are as an organization.

The right culture creates a more engaged, productive and creative team. They connect at a deeper level and give more of themselves with every interaction. It drives accountability, performance and success.

Culture as a strategic driver

There’s a reason Jim Collins recommends getting “the right people on the bus” first. When you have the right team, you can solve almost any problem. You can get more accomplished. You can out-think, out-innovate, out-perform your competition.

The most sustainable differentiator for a business is its people and culture.

Look at the most successful startups. A handful of people, brilliant in their own ways, coming together to achieve a common purpose. The first stages are brilliant. But what happens when they try to scale?

This is where you need to be intentional about culture. Design it to as clearly as you do the vision for your company. Otherwise, that solid foundation ends up cracking and eventually breaks.

When working with clients, we focus on 3 big questions to build the right foundation for growth:

Who do you want the business to be? (CULTURE)

What impact do you want to make? (PURPOSE)

What do you want the business to accomplish? (VISION & GOALS)

Notice the first one is all about culture. There’s a reason for that.

Culture by design

Many companies let their culture develop organically. If you do this, you might get lucky. More often, you get a mixed bag of behaviors and gets worse over time.

Instead, we need to be intentional about our culture. Design it. Nurture it. Improve it.

Designing the right core values and their associated behaviors is the start.

Picture it’s 5 years from now and you’ve been ridiculously successful, then ask yourself?

  • What behaviors led to that success?
  • Which ones, if you could clone throughout your entire team, would accelerate your wins?
  • What behaviors made it a workplace you (and others) LOVE being part of?

Questions like this will help you create a list of behaviors that can be used to develop your more concise values.

With them, you design the rituals to build them into your organization at every level.

Then quarter by quarter, you design how you’re going to gather feedback, adjust course, reinforce those behaviors.

You look at your team to see who is living them and make staffing decisions based on them.

People and culture will become woven throughout your strategic plan (growth roadmap) at every stage of the way.

Top strategic culture mistakes

There’s a lot of ways we can get culture wrong. Here’s some of the most common ones:

Culture gets delegated to the head of HR

While the head of HR may be responsible for a number of the cultural rituals and activities, delegating “culture” is never a good idea. The CEO needs to be accountable for the core elements of the business – vision, purpose, strategy and culture.

Not being explicit with your culture

Years ago, I was called into a large company that was having problems with their values not being lived throughout the business. In their boardroom there was a beautiful, framed poster with their 5 values on it, each with a short description.

The first value – Quality. The second – Hospitality.

Sure, each had a phrase beside it explaining, but there wasn’t enough clarity to know what they truly meant. How are they LIVED in the various areas of the company? What behaviours were associated with each?

When defining your culture, it’s vital that you’re explicit with it. Consider this:

Value: Fanatical Customer Service


A real person answers the phone in less than 5 rings

We do everything we can to solve their problem on the first call

Go the extra mile to delight the customer

If everyone in your team was trained on these actions, they were recognized, coached and nurtured, would your customer service become a strategic differentiator?

Settling for good enough

Too often we see this in hiring. You need someone now. They’re not a great cultural fit, but you really need their skills. So, you make the hire.

In doing so, you’re intentionally watering down your culture and potentially tainting it.

Sure, that person might end up being a good cultural fit, but more often than not they don’t.

In the end, not-great hires become the difference between a mid-level team and a championship team.

Which do you want?

Ignoring toxic behaviors

In many of the companies we’ve worked in, there’s a toxic genius lurking. I’m sure you know the one – they’re amazingly productive or are the key holder of some information … but they leave a wake of cultural destruction behind them.

Every day that “genius” is in your organization, they’re undermining all the work you’re doing with your teams and culture. After all, if you’re willing to put up with that behavior, then your values mean nothing, right?

Toxic behaviors must be dealt with quickly and effectively.

Warn. Coach. Terminate.

The Cheat Sheet

Culture doesn’t eat strategy for breakfast, culture IS strategy.

To build a great business, culture needs to be woven into every element of your strategic planning process. It needs to be as core as your vision and purpose. Intentionally envisioned and designed.

People and culture should reviewed and strengthened every step along your company roadmap.

Doing so will help you attract the best team members, increase engagement, innovation and productivity and create the business you’ve always dreamed of.

Mike Knapp


Mike has been helping businesses achieve their goals for more than 20 years. He believes there is a better way for business owners and leaders to build their businesses and achieve their big goals. As a Gravitas Impact Premium coach, he leverages the 7 Attributes of Agile Growth™ to simplify the art of strategy and discipline of execution.

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