Why Culture Eats Strategy for Breakfast

This is the seventh of a series of weekly columns by Tyler Elm and Jim Harris on how sustainability can save business.

“Culture eats strategy for breakfast, every day.” This was Tyler’s response to a question during a panel session at a recent conference. The panel was discussing the challenges faced by professional managers in their efforts to implement sustainability into business.

The other challenge under discussion was about finding the appropriate balance between sharing insights and strategy with others, versus holding some things back for the competitive reasons.

Tyler’s comment was relevant to both. His point: having a strategy is one thing, but being able to implement it is entirely another. After all, the value of a strategy is not what is written on the whiteboard or the back of napkin, it is the value unleashed by engaging the minds and hearts of motivated employees and suppliers.

The key to unlocking this value is to understand and harness the corporate culture, work within its bounds and value system, while making room for new ideas. Enterprise Risk Management colleagues refer to the ability to implement a strategy (or not) as “execution risk.”

Tyler has been fortunate to have had the experience of developing and implementing business sustainability strategies over the past decade in three different, very large corporations: a $14 billion company, a $400 billion company and Canadian Tire, a $12 billion company. In every instance he had to tailor his approach to the culture’s unique value system and the process by which ideas are accepted into the community.

Making Room for New Ideas

New ideas may not easily find room to coexist with pre-existing ones: There is a natural institutional and cultural inertia that opposes new concepts that compete for acceptance within an established corporate culture. It’s like a new group of people joining a cocktail party that is already well underway. They are either accepted, adding to and changing the pre-existing dynamic — tolerated as a fringe element, talking amongst themselves in the corner of the room — or totally rejected and asked to leave.

In short, one must tailor how the building blocks of the strategy are applied so that they are accepted. This is a very difficult to achieve, particularly for new employees, or “outsiders” tasked with this agenda. And believe us, we’ve both made a few mistakes; but, we’ve also learned that it is important to push the boundaries as well. The trick is knowing when and how to do it.

During the launch of the sustainability strategy for Tyler’s previous employer (a global retailer headquartered in a “dry county” of a US state in the buckle of the Bible belt) business sustainability “milestone meetings” were held every four months for employees and key suppliers to listen and learn from external sustainability leaders, and to share employee progress and success stories.

At one meeting, Ray Anderson, the Founder of Interface carpet, was the guest speaker. [As an aside: Interface’s 15 year sustainability effort has driven $450 million to the bottom line in savings — equal to 28 per cent of the cumulative operating profit over that period.] When Ray was part way through his talk people began to walk out — right in front of the CEO, Board members, senior executives and several hundred employees and guests. Tyler was astonished and had no idea why, or how people could be so rude or have such disregard for a guest speaker.

Later, as he found out via a few blunt e-mails from some of those who had left, he learned that Ray’s use of the geological time scale and comparing it to a 24-hour clock to demonstrate how relatively little time humans had been on the planet — a few seconds on Ray’s clock — and yet had how much we had changed it, was offensive to their fundamental religious beliefs

Being Canadian and new to the US south, being an atheist and someone who had studied geology, Tyler had no idea that such ideas could be a source of friction — that there were still people whobelieved that the world was only several thousand years old. Who knew?

Debriefing with the CEO after the meeting, Tyler apologized for the cultural oversight. The CEO waved off Tyler’s apology and expressed his disappointment at those who had left the meeting because, as he saw it, part of the value of the business sustainability strategy was opening up one’s perspective to those of others, to listen and learn about what matters to other people and their value systems. To this very day, one of the core competencies Tyler stress’s and includes in job requirements is the ability and wiliness to:

• Raise potentially controversial issues in a manner that encourages dialogue;
• Listen to others while maintaining a wide perspective on issues; and
• Incorporate diverse views and constructive criticism, leading to improved outcomes and understanding.

You Gotta have Faith

Reflecting upon his first few months in his new context, Tyler began to see a pattern of behaviour and expression of acceptance of sustainability into the culture by employees as almost evangelical in nature. People expressed acceptance of business sustainability as they would a faith-based belief system.

It hit Tyler smack in the face when, during one of the regular Saturday morning meetings, a senior vice president stood up and declared that he was now “a believer” in sustainability and its value to business because, if it was not for the business sustainability initiative, he would not have been able to sign the deal with “The Eagles” for the retailer to be the sole distributor of their retrospective CD box set. As it turned out, it was the underlying value system of sustainability that helped the west-coast musicians relate to the executive from rural middle-America. That deal alone probably paid for the entire sustainability team’s payroll and consulting budget for the next decade.

A beer-drinking Canadian atheist in the Republican dominated dry-county in the US Bible belt, Tyler had his work cut out for him for the next business sustainability Milestone Meeting. The featured guest speaker was non-other than the former Vice President Al Gore, who was going to give his now famous An Inconvenient Truth talk and promote his movie. If some people didn’t believe the world was more than a few thousand years old, how the hell would they ever “believe in climate change” — from a democrat politician?

Remember, culture trumps strategy every time: As it turned out, the answer was to open up with a preacher as the Vice President’s warm-up act. Jim Ball, the Executive Director of the Evangelical Environmental Network, kicked off the meeting’s discussion on climate change playing to the home-town audience — talking about how climate change has repercussions for “the health of our children” and “global and domestic poverty” because it is the world’s poor that will be most affected by it.

Jim’s message was that climate change was not a political issue; rather, it is an issue of moral duty. “How we care for God’s creation is one of the greatest moral challenges of our time. And as Christians, we also know it is a challenge that cuts to the heart of how we promote and cherish life.”

After this meeting, “belief” in climate change was never an issue, and Al Gore received a standing ovation.

In closing we offer you this observation: Implementing a business sustainability strategy into any business is equal parts strategy and change management. They are intertwined and dependent. To be successful, one should use the momentum of the force that oppose change — the cultural values, practices and inertia of the business — as the conduit into the business and its operations. It’s like using a sort of cultural Judo to embed sustainability values into the business operations and its culture.

This article was originally published on Huffington Post

Jim Harris is an internationally renowned business speaker and environmental speaker. You can watch a video of him speaking about some of these issues at IdeaCity, the Canadian equivalent of TED. He is the author of Blindsided, a #1 international bestseller published in 80 countries worldwide. He speaks at 40 conferences a year around the world. You can reach him through Linkedin.com or follow him on Twitter @jimharris

Tyler Elm specializes in employing business sustainability as a strategic framework for business innovation, profit and organizational enhancement. Tyler has an unprecedented wealth of first-hand knowledge, experience and success at incorporating sustainability into the business operations and culture of some of the world’s largest companies. You can follow Tyler Elm on Twitter:@TylerJamesElm