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A Matter Of Debate

When Your Company’s Culture and Strategy Are Misaligned, Your Employees Will Be, Too

Most of the companies I’ve worked for put the customer squarely in the center of everything they do. When this is backed by an aligned strategy and culture, success and growth usually ensue. But when key values such as teamwork, innovation, and accountability are not part of the core DNA, the “success” won’t last. You will be left with dissatisfied customers, partners, and employees who are feeling frustrated, powerless, and unmotivated.

Company leaders must take the time to get both the culture and the strategy right to ensure customers, partners, vendors, and employees understand the company’s strategic vision and where it’s going, its core values, and where they fit into the equation. For employees, culture should inspire — and even empower — them to execute the company’s vision. As importantly, it gives them a moral compass to use when making the hundreds of decisions they need to make daily, often without a second thought.

Executives know that the purpose of a healthy company culture is to keep employees aligned with the company’s vision, and a good strategy informs the tactics that transform that vision into reality. But if you’re missing the mark, employees will be the first to tell you with their actions. Here are some worrisome signs to watch out for:

1. Passing the buck of responsibility: I have worked at some companies without clear strategies, and those companies constantly deal with employee and team confusion and misaligned goals. No one knows how to measure success (outside of their own team and, in extreme cases, even within their own teams) or how they can contribute to helping the company meet its overall business objectives and goals, which creates silos, finger-pointing, and dissatisfied customers and employees alike.

One of the brands I joined had no data to prove that its employees understood the strategic direction of the business and how they contributed to its success. The leaders just assumed the workers knew what they were doing. When we measured, we discovered that a shockingly high percentage of employees had little understanding of the company’s strategy — and, as a result, no concept of how to pursue it.

This disconnect naturally leads to a myopic view of what success looks like — with employees focused solely on the attainment of their individual and immediate team goal(s). And this often leads to conflicting agendas within a company, misunderstanding between teams, and, at its worst, finger-pointing when customer satisfaction and loyalty scores are low.

When employees don’t know what others are working toward and why, it’s easy to blame someone else for a problem that crops up because they don’t understand that person’s or team’s goals or strategy. If you truly align your company’s goals and strategies across the entire organization, employees can work together with a common agenda and purpose.

2. Defining perks as culture: One company I worked for wanted a Silicon Valley vibe under adult supervision. The leadership team sought the innovative atmosphere of a startup with the seriousness and pedigree of an established corporation. Great idea — or at least it could have been.

We spent a lot of time and money on our open office concept interspersed with ping-pong and foosball tables, cool branding, and even nap rooms. Don’t get me wrong: These are all great and can add to employee morale. But having these things doesn’t truly define culture.

What we neglected to do was bring the strategy on paper to life. Every executive had a different answer for how the company’s vision informed the culture — if they could answer this question at all. We had a defined set of corporate values that seemed more like poster material than substance. These values were not backed up by leadership’s action or accountability, and if leaders weren’t embracing them, how could they expect employees to?

When we announced a dramatic shift in our business as a result of our inability to meet our growth targets, some employees asked us how we would maintain the company culture during the transition. Talk about mixed-up priorities.

3. A lack of engagement: When the company says one thing and does another, everything falls apart. I worked for one company that claimed to embrace failure. Failure, within our strategy, indicated that people were taking the appropriate risks to innovate and improve.

To glorify this, some leaders (against my and my colleagues’ advice) thought that advertising a “wall of failure” upon which employees were supposed to write down the times they failed at work could help others learn from those mistakes, and it would promote this risk-taking behavior.

But the wall remained rather empty because employees knew that even though the company claimed to embrace failure, its actions didn’t back it up. No one wanted to advertise what they did wrong — it was a massive disconnect in strategy and culture. That wall of failure? It was scrapped soon after its debut.

To boost engagement, equip managers with the knowledge to talk to employees about the company’s vision, strategy, and direction. When employees spot hypocrisies, don’t rebuke them — listen to them. Don’t leave the company’s vision on a dusty poster in the break room. Think about it with every new project. Ask yourself, “Will this project push the company closer to or further from our ability to execute our vision?”

When projects or the strategy don’t gel with the vision, make changes and explain to employees why the changes were necessary. Be transparent, and communicate often. As employees see their leaders put vision and strategy first, they will do the same in their work. 

Employees know when the culture doesn’t match the strategy, and no one wants to follow an inconsistent message. Listen to what your employees are telling you, even if they’re using actions — or a lack thereof — instead of words to do so.

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Emile Lee
Emile Lee is a senior corporate communications executive. With more than 20 years of ex perience in international communications and public relations, Emile develops communication strategies that help companies achieve business results through their brand image and reputation, employee engagement, and thought leadership platforms. Emile Lee is an opinion columnist for the CEOWORLD magazine.