Why Culture Eats Strategy For Lunch

By David Mizne

An Interview With Bryan Franklin & Jennifer Russell

We have come a long way since the days of command and control management. Today’s company cultures that value open communication, collaboration and flexibility tend to have better product innovation and employee performance.

I recently caught up with executive coaches Bryan Franklin and Jennifer Russell, two 15Five advisors, who discuss these shifts in the modern workplace. According to Bryan and Jennifer, being focused solely on productivity and structure gives a company a cultural and competitive disadvantage. The paradigm of leadership is changing from one that only makes demands of employees, to one where leadership fully supports them.
Q: What role does asking questions play in driving employee performance?
JR: Companies are always seeking ways to get people working harder, more efficiently, and more productively. But the question usually being asked is, “What is an employee doing for the company?” If the answer is “not doing enough”, you lose your job. With a process like 15Five, you are inserting a nervous system into organizations where you can change the culture by changing the questions. It is one of those applications that raises consciousness, dialogues and conversations.

The best way to run an organization is not to view the employees in service to the company. The reality is that organizations must serve the people, and asking for feedback facilitates that.

BF: Asking questions allows leaders to gain access to their employees’ psychology, emotions, and who they are in the bigger picture. They can discover the perceived limitations of each one and provide structure for each employee to realize that his limits are further than he thought.

You, as manager, can place the employee in the path of something you know they can do but they don’t know it yet. Offer support along the way as a commitment to their development, and employees will respond by rising to the challenge. To them it feels like guidance and empowerment, not micromanagement.
Q: So what would you say to a leader who doesn’t want to be in service to employees? It’s 1984 for him, he wants to tell people what to do and they had better do it!
BF: The answer is simple, just measure the results. There are numerous studies about the value of company culture. I am reminded of Peter Drucker’s famous quote that “culture eats strategy for breakfast“. This idea is not based on feelings, it is based on results.

Ask the skeptics, “What is the lifetime value of your employees? How high is your turnover?” Then look at the lifetime value of employees to Zappos, Facebook, 99 signals, and any of the companies that have a more current mindset.

JR: When organizations hold that people are in exclusive service to them, those people feel less committed. Efficiency and all other metrics go down.

Everyone can relate to having two projects at once. With one of the projects, you are overworked and misunderstood. Examine your energy and willpower when you get up knowing that you have to work on that. You find every excuse to check email, chat at the water cooler, anything instead of doing what’s most needed. We hide when we have a lack of clarity, confidence, or inspiration.

Now, imagine working on a project where the goals are crystal clear, feedback is honest and ample, and you’re supported when challenges arise. When you have no shadows, nothing is stopping you from taking the next action that is most high leverage.

Command and control was attempting to lift roadblocks to productivity. Now we are so interconnected technologically that we can communicate with the entire organization within minutes. With applications like 15Five, leaders can motivate employees, and be productive and efficient all at same time. And we no longer have to sacrifice productivity for communication.

BF: The key difference between hierarchical control and a supportive system is the amount of creativity and initiative that employees operate with. You can have the most intelligent, forward thinkers leading the company. They can create and enforce a brilliant plan, but the people interfacing with it and executing it are not management — they are the employees on the front-lines. They require support and creative freedom, not commands and controls.

The greater the uncertainty in the marketplace, the greater the creativity you will need to stay competitive. Things are moving so quickly that there is a staggering amount of uncertainty. Stop stifling it by focusing on productivity and compliance.
Q: How important is company structure for effective work? Some people naturally have an egoic relationship with their role. “I am in marketing and you are in sales. This is my arena, and I have pride around it.” How do you dissolve that tension, or are those walls necessary?
BF: You can use people’s normal egoic attachments to their roles in a productive way. Many people see their role as the surface area of their domain. Like a sales representative for the western region of the US and the sales rep for the central region. They view their jobs geographically — mine bumps up against yours. When that is your focus, there are always gaps and overlaps. Egoic attachment to that surface area arrests the energy flow throughout the organization as needs shift and change.

A more productive lens is to view the input and output required along with the criteria for excellence on both ends. You want excellent deliverables and high-level performance of back-end responsibilities. The surface area there is your ever-changing job. Use your egoic attachment for your benefit, but reframe it as an attachment to people’s appreciation of your output.

You can trace that appreciation through all the levels of an organization, from product design to development, to marketing, to sales and then to the customer. You can map the energy flow of production within a company, and negotiate how to do a better hand-off.

Don’t identify with the shape and size of your role as real estate, think of it as a relay race. You aren’t trying to get from mile marker 3 to mile marker 4, you are trying to run a baton from one person to another. Whether that’s product to sales or sales to customer, collective effort is required to win.

JR: When everyone within the organization is flexible and nimbly moving towards higher leverage initiatives, they don’t get stuck and bogged down. Even when you have a long-term goal, things change within that constantly. The mentality is “I worked 8 hours today, I am done now” versus looking at the outcome, realizing that it didn’t work, and doing something else that will produce the desired result.

Expand that outcome-focused mindset over 6 to 12 months. If people know the larger vision and have flexibility to act with that focus in mind, they can all come together around accomplishing something truly great.

Bryan FranklinBryan Franklin has coached top-level executives at Fortune 1000 companies (including Apple, Logitech, Google, Cisco and LinkedIn) and helped entrepreneurs build their fledgling organizations into success stories – taking them from start-ups to billion dollar-generators. He’s been one of the world’s most successful executive coaches for the last decade, and together with his partner in business and in life, Jennifer, he’s developing the most impactful group experiences and online entrepreneurial education available in the planet.

Screen Shot 2014-06-20 at 9.32.06 AMJennifer Russell is a dyed-in-the-wool entrepreneur, having worked exclusively in high impact start-ups, most recently as president of an environmental chemical company, bringing more than 40 new technology products to market. Her dedication to the intersection between creativity and productivity made her famous for “getting more done by accident than most people get done on purpose.” Whether its guiding a cancer drug through the arduous process of testing and development or guiding an entrepreneur through the harrowing process of creating their business, Jennifer’s insight and inspiration are bar none.


How has communication and supportive leadership changed employee performance at your organization? Leave us a comment below.

Photo CreditState Library of New South Wales

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