Want to Grow Your Business? Put Culture Before Strategy

Which is more important in business – strategy or culture? For me, culture comes out top every time. That doesn’t mean to say, we should ignore strategy. But get your culture right first and then use this to shape your strategy.  Culture trumps strategy. It’s a bold statement. And one that can cause upset. Particularly for those CEOs and board directors who love discussing strategy. Culture, by contrast, is often seen as a more ‘fluffy’ topic, often passed over to the HR department.

But prioritising strategy over culture is a dangerous approach. Your culture shapes every aspect of your business; including your strategy.  As Sir Richard Branson said: “Culture is one of the most underappreciated essentials in business. No matter how visionary, brilliant and far-reaching a leader’s strategy might be; it can all come undone if it is not fully supported by a strong and spirited corporate culture.”

Meanwhile at the recent Growth Hacking World Forum, Kris Pawluk (pictured) from Google advised that we should not be attached to any given strategy and instead should become attached to a culture of growth. And that’s from the guy in charge of strategy at Google!

What do we mean by ‘culture’ and why is it so important?

“They’ve got a great culture!” It’s a phrase often uttered when talking about companies like Virgin and Google. But what exactly do we mean by culture?  Perhaps a good place to start is by explaining what culture isn’t.

  • It’s not your dress code. It’s not beer on Fridays.
  • It’s not ping-pong tables, free massages or stand-up meetings.
  • It’s not open-plan offices or a day off on your birthday.

So often, culture is mistaken for employee perks. But to dismiss culture as simply ‘making work an enjoyable place’ is to drastically underestimate its power. Of course, how you treat your staff is part of your company culture. But it’s not everything. Culture is about much more and is evident across all aspects of your business.

  • It’s about how you communicate with customers and the language you use.
  • It’s how you deal with customer complaints and how you structure your business for growth.
  • It’s your standards, systems and procedures; your daily rituals and the behaviours seen in your company.
  • It’s how your staff feel about the company; how they talk to one another and how they treat your customers.

‘Culture’ doesn’t have to mean ‘relaxed’ or ‘fun’. A company culture can equally mean discipline and order.

Your culture can be seen in your brand, your marketing, your office layout, your practices and procedures. Quite simply, everything you do and everything you achieve is defined by your culture.  It’s worth pointing out at this stage that ‘culture’ doesn’t have to mean ‘relaxed’ or ‘fun’. A company culture can equally mean discipline and order. The important thing is that each company’s culture is unique – it is not something that can be copied or replicated. Culture transcends the personalities and actions of individual staff. It remains constant – staff may come and go but culture remains.

Getting your culture right is important because it directly impacts on your success. With the right culture you’ll retain your best employees, attract more customers, and build customer loyalty. You’ll create an environment where every member of your teams is passionate about seeing the company succeed.

But your ultimate aim should not be just to have a great culture but to nurture a well-defined growth culture.

What is Growth Culture?

Creating a growth culture in your business is one of the most powerful things you can do. Once a successful growth culture is established, every action taken will contribute to the success and growth of your business.

Embracing Failure
Fostering a growth culture means allowing staff to take risks, creating an environment where colleagues are eager to share great ideas rather than keeping them to themselves. It means embracing failure. Rather than being something to avoid, failure becomes something positive because it proves you are trying new things rather than sticking with what’s safe.

Getting Things Done
When you have a growth culture you get more done. You can trust people to do the job in hand rather than micromanaging their actions. And when an opportunity or idea arises, your team is empowered to act without wasting time. A growth culture brings energy and focus to the business. No time is wasted, everything is focussed on getting things done as quickly as possible. Staff are committed, energetic, and passionate. They want the company to succeed and love making progress.

In my book Leading the Crusade, I featured a case study about online electrical retailer AO.com. This is a great example of a company that’s had a strong growth culture from day one. Even before the company employed any staff, the founders were focussed on growth – building their first website in just one week. A culture of openness, trust and accountability can be seen throughout everything that AO.com does. One example that I love is that the customer service staff have the power to send customers replacement products without needing to get sign-off from a manager first. It means issues are resolved quickly and as a result customers are delighted with the service, actively encouraging new customers to the brand via positive reviews.

Sharing Ideas
One common attribute of companies with a strong growth culture is that they have an environment based on transparency. Rather than hiding key data from employees or being secretive about the future; a company with a strong growth culture is founded on openness.

One thing that struck me while attending the recent Growth Hacking World Forum, where many of the delegates came from successful new start-ups, was how open this community of ‘growth hackers’ are. They are not afraid to talk openly about their business, sharing strategies and tactics with one another, even with people who may be competitors.

When Culture Meets Strategy

Let’s end by returning to strategy for a moment. It is still important. But for me, strategy is something that’s always changing and adapting. When discussing or formulating strategies, you should always use your company culture as the starting point. Ask the question, how does this strategy fit with our company culture? If it doesn’t, you’ll instantly know it’s not the right strategy for your business.

Culture is not something you can choose to have. You already have a culture – every business does. It’s whether you choose to shape the culture or risk leaving it to its own devices. The choice is yours.