“Culture Eats Strategy for Lunch!” Assuring Your Strategy Will Be Digested


Marge Combe 

Wisconsin, USA

The Rockefeller Foundation’s stellar CEO, Judith Rodin, shared with interviewer Rahim Kanani her thoughts about managing large-scale change in a Forbes online post (April 23, 2012).  She observed that a great strategy for an organization is only part of the picture, noting the difficulty in executing on the strategy: “culture eats strategy for lunch”.

She didn’t benignly say that culture could help or hinder a leader’s ability to execute strategy.  She said that when strategy – the herald angel of change – is pitted against the policies and norms and ‘sacred cows’ that make up organizational culture, it is culture that will swallow the strategy.  If the culture is risk-averse, or treats change as a management fiat, it does not bode well for successful strategy implementation.  So how do you assure that when a change strategy is served at the table of your organization’s culture, the digestion process is a smooth one?

There are six ways to assure your culture is ‘strategy-ready’ for the coming evolution:

  1. Model change comfort.  Be a model for others and encourage key leaders to develop a realistic and comfortable view of change.  An attitude of ‘change is part of being in business’ is realistic and calm.  Consider the leader who, faced with a new competitor who was making inroads, fumed and insisted they were idiots and wouldn’t last.  His denial set a tone.  His salespeople decided it was ok to ‘leave well enough alone’ and not provide street intelligence about the competitor’s approach.  It is equally important not to be seen as a change junkie.  Change is fatiguing, and people need to feel that the strategies for change are necessary and worth their discomfort. 
  2. Indulge risk.  The negative connotations of risk always outweigh the positive – and should be given due diligence.  But without risk there is no opportunity.  Creating an atmosphere of exploration of risks opens healthy debate in the organization.  Author Ray Bradbury said, “Living at risk is jumping off the cliff and building your wings on the way down.”  The most strategy-ready organizations have an expectation of building wings on the way down. 
  3. Keep the vision front and center.  Articulate, then repeat, repeat, repeat the story of where your organization is going and why it’s important.  People in an organization are acculturated to anchor themselves in the mission of the organization, but that is a symbol of the steady state.  They need to continually be re-anchored in the ‘both-and’ paradigm of mission and vision: steady mission and evolving vision – things will change and we’ll still remain true to who we are.


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About the Author 

flag-usamarge-combeMarge Combe

Wisconsin, USA 

Marge Combe is a coach/consultant with Vernal Management Consultants, LLC (VMC), a firm specializing in the professional development and effective business practices of leaders and leadership teams (www.vernalmgmt.com).  VMC currently coaches a number of leaders and business owners in the project management profession, in North America, Europe, the Middle East, the Pacific Rim, and South America.  Marge joined VMC in 2008 after more than 35 years in portfolio management, strategic planning and large-scale change management for Northwestern Mutual and Whirlpool Corporation.   She has leveraged that experience and a passion for coaching and mentoring into a consulting and leadership coaching role with special focus on her roots: change management, strategic planning, and project management.  Marge is a former PMI board director and Chair of the Strategic Planning and Program Alignment Committee.  She was instrumental in shaping and leading a Fortune 500 Project Management Benchmarking Forum.  She is certified in coaching through Lominger International and in emotional intelligence through the Institute for Health and Human Potential.  She received the 2007 Woman of Influence Award for mentoring, and the 2010 Leadership Excellence Award from Marquette University.  Marge can be contacted at [email protected].