If culture eats strategy for breakfast – what’s for dinner?

I recently had a wonderful opportunity to participate and present at the annual conference of the Worldwide Airline Customer Relations Association (WACRA) in Helsinki, Finland. WACRA has been convening for seventy years – with the exception of 2001 when the 9/11 terrorist attacks happened. While #WACRA16 was hosted by Finnair, the audience consisted of customer relations and service leaders from almost thirty airlines around the world; Delta, Southwest, Virgin breakfast on FinnairAmerica, Bangkok, Emirates, Qatar, Qantas and Cathay Pacific, just to name a few.

I met the current chair of the WACRA Board, Kavita Al-Jassim already in 2008 at Gulf Air in Bahrain. In 2009 she invited me to speak about team leadership at WACRA’s annual conference in Miami, and now I was invited back to #WACRA16 in Helsinki! I was honored and overjoyed! This was, in fact, a special treat for me since not only because I love any opportunity to work with the airline industry leadership but also because I’m a Finn who has been living in Seattle for the past 23 years, and cherish every opportunity to visit my family and friends in my native Finland.

This time my topic was about how to embrace organizational culture for strategic planning purposes. Every organization and team has a distinct culture – and even though it’s sometimes hard to express in words, we feel it. Organizational cultures can be marked by a sense of inclusivity or exclusivity, innovation or tradition, and so on. Culture has the power to conform. It is the way people at a workplace believe “things are done around here.” Unless the strategies for change or growth are built with an understanding of the elements and dynamism of the organization’s culture, those strategies – even if created with the best of intentions – will wither because they will be resisted.

I addressed the four key elements of culture that leaders need to consciously assess and address when engaging in strategic planning. The four elements – Mission, Consistency, Adaptability and Involvement – have been established by Dan Denison with some thirty years of research. In my consulting work I use the Denison methodology to audit the status of the culture in my client companies. The process of exploring these four elements reveals the beliefs and assumptions that underlie decision making on teams and in organizations. Uncovering and naming the invisible forces of culture creates clarity about what actions need to be done to strengthen the culture. When the strategies are aligned with the culture, the chances for success are manifold. This is the wholesome “dinner” – in other words, an organization where culture and strategy feed each other, not eat each other!


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