Culture Eats Strategy for Breakfast: HR’s Role in Building a Strategic Culture

As the famous management consultant Peter Drucker once said, “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.” In other words, a company’s culture can be more powerful than its strategic plans in shaping its success or failure. That’s where HR comes in. Building a strategic culture is not as easy as it seems at first sight.

As the guardians of company culture, HR professionals have a crucial role to play in ensuring that the culture supports and enables the company’s strategic goals. But what does that look like in practice? Here are a few key areas where HR can make a difference:

1. Hiring for cultural fit

It’s not just about finding candidates with the right skills and experience. HR needs to look for people who will thrive in the company’s culture and contribute to its strategic goals. That might mean tweaking job descriptions, interview questions, and assessment tools to screen for cultural alignment.

As David Ulrich, a prolific author and professor of business at the Ross School of Business, University of Michigan, states, “HR should be the guardian of the culture, not just the guardian of the people.” This means that HR professionals must go beyond traditional recruiting and hiring practices to find candidates who not only have the necessary qualifications but also fit well with the company’s values and cultural norms.

To achieve this, HR can work with hiring managers to create job descriptions that accurately reflect the company’s culture and values. They can also develop interview questions and assessment tools that probe for cultural fit, such as asking candidates about their work style, communication preferences, and how they handle conflict.

Furthermore, HR can involve current employees in the hiring process, either as interviewers or through referral programs. Who better to assess a candidate’s cultural fit than the people who live and breathe the company’s culture every day?

By making cultural fit a key criteria in the hiring process, HR can help ensure that new hires will not only perform well in their roles but also contribute to a positive, strategically aligned culture.

2. Onboarding for strategic impact

The first few weeks and months on the job are critical for setting new hires up for success. HR can use the onboarding process to immerse new employees in the company’s culture and help them understand how their role contributes to the larger strategic picture.

David Ulrich emphasizes the importance of onboarding, stating, “Onboarding is not just about compliance, it’s about commitment. It’s about creating a sense of belonging and purpose for new employees.”

To achieve this, HR can design onboarding programs that go beyond the basics of paperwork and policy training. They can include activities that help new hires build relationships with their colleagues, understand the company’s history and values, and see how their work fits into the bigger picture.

For example, some companies assign new hires a “buddy” or mentor who can help them navigate the company’s culture and answer any questions they may have. Others create scavenger hunts or other interactive activities that introduce new hires to different departments and projects.

HR can also use the onboarding process to reinforce the company’s strategic goals and priorities. This might involve having senior leaders share their vision for the company’s future, or creating a series of workshops or training sessions that focus on the skills and knowledge needed to execute the strategy.

By making onboarding a strategic priority, HR can help new hires hit the ground running and feel a sense of purpose and belonging from day one.

3. Training for strategic skills

As the company’s strategy evolves, so too must its employees’ skills. HR can partner with business leaders to identify the skills and competencies needed to execute the strategy, and then design and deliver training programs to close any gaps.

David Ulrich points out that “HR should be the architect of talent, not just the provider of training.” This means that HR professionals need to take a proactive, strategic approach to talent development, rather than simply reacting to requests for training.

To do this, HR can start by working with business leaders to identify the critical skills and competencies needed to achieve the company’s strategic goals. This might involve conducting a skills gap analysis, or using data analytics to identify areas where the company is lacking in talent.

Training for strategic skills - Strategic Culture
Training for strategic skills – Strategic Culture

Once the key skills have been identified, HR can design and deliver training programs that are tailored to the company’s specific needs. This might include a mix of classroom training, online learning, on-the-job coaching, and stretch assignments that give employees the opportunity to apply their new skills in real-world situations.

HR can also create a culture of continuous learning, where employees are encouraged and rewarded for developing new skills and competencies. This might involve offering tuition reimbursement for external training programs, or creating a mentorship program where experienced employees can share their knowledge with newer hires.

By taking a strategic approach to training and development, HR can help ensure that the company has the talent it needs to execute its strategy and stay competitive in an ever-changing business landscape.

4. Recognizing and rewarding strategic behaviors

What gets recognized gets repeated. HR can work with managers to identify the behaviors and actions that support the company’s strategic goals, and then create recognition and reward programs to reinforce those behaviors.

As David Ulrich notes, “HR should be the architect of the reward system, not just the administrator of benefits.” This means that HR professionals need to think creatively about how to design recognition and reward programs that align with the company’s strategic priorities.

To start, HR can work with managers to identify the specific behaviors and actions that contribute to the company’s success. This might include things like collaboration, innovation, customer service, or efficiency.

Once the key behaviors have been identified, HR can create recognition programs that celebrate and reward employees who demonstrate those behaviors. This might include public recognition at company meetings, spot bonuses, or extra time off.

HR can also work with managers to ensure that performance evaluations and promotion decisions take into account an employee’s contribution to the company’s strategic goals, not just their individual job performance.

By creating a culture of recognition and reward, HR can help reinforce the behaviors and actions that drive the company’s success and keep employees motivated and engaged.

5. Measuring and monitoring cultural health

Just like financial metrics, cultural metrics can provide valuable insights into the company’s strategic health. HR can use employee surveys, exit interviews, and other tools to keep a pulse on the company’s culture and identify areas for improvement.

David Ulrich emphasizes the importance of measuring and monitoring culture, stating, “HR should be the architect of the organization’s culture, not just the caretaker of the climate.” This means that HR professionals need to take a proactive, data-driven approach to understanding and shaping the company’s culture.

To do this, HR can start by defining the key elements of the company’s desired culture, such as values, behaviors, and norms. They can then develop metrics and tools to measure how well the actual culture aligns with the desired culture.

This might include regular employee engagement surveys that ask questions about the company’s values, leadership, and work environment. HR can also conduct focus groups or interviews with employees to gain a deeper understanding of the company’s cultural strengths and weaknesses.

HR can also use exit interviews to gather insights from employees who are leaving the company. While it may be too late to retain those employees, their feedback can provide valuable information about areas where the company’s culture may be falling short.

By regularly measuring and monitoring the company’s cultural health, HR can identify areas for improvement and work with leaders across the organization to implement changes that will strengthen the culture and support the company’s strategic goals.

6. Fostering cross-functional collaboration

Silos can be the death knell of a strategic culture. HR can play a key role in breaking down barriers between departments and fostering cross-functional collaboration.

David Ulrich stresses the importance of collaboration, noting, “HR should be the architect of collaboration, not just the facilitator of teamwork.” This means that HR professionals need to actively design and promote structures and processes that encourage employees to work together across organizational boundaries.

One way HR can do this is by creating cross-functional project teams or task forces that bring together employees from different departments to work on strategic initiatives. These teams can help break down silos, foster innovation, and ensure that the company’s strategy is being executed in a coordinated way.

HR can also promote collaboration through the design of the physical workspace. By creating open, flexible workspaces that encourage interaction and spontaneous conversations, HR can help foster a culture of collaboration and teamwork.

Another way HR can promote collaboration is by recognizing and rewarding employees who demonstrate collaborative behaviors. This might include things like sharing knowledge, helping colleagues, or contributing to the success of cross-functional projects.

By making collaboration a key part of the company’s culture, HR can help ensure that everyone is working together towards the same strategic goals, rather than pursuing their own departmental agendas.

7. Leading by example

Finally, HR professionals need to lead by example when it comes to building a strategic culture. They need to embody the values and behaviors they want to see in others.

As David Ulrich puts it, “HR should be the role model for the organization’s values, not just the enforcer of policies.” This means that HR professionals need to walk the talk when it comes to things like collaboration, innovation, and customer focus.

One way HR can lead by example is by actively participating in strategic initiatives and projects. Rather than just supporting these initiatives from the sidelines, HR professionals should be in the trenches, working alongside their colleagues to drive the company’s strategy forward.

HR can also lead by example by being transparent and accountable in their own work. They should be open about their goals and priorities, and willing to admit when things aren’t going as planned. By modeling this kind of transparency and accountability, HR can help create a culture where everyone feels comfortable speaking up and taking ownership of their work.

Another way HR can lead by example is by continuously learning and developing their own skills and knowledge. By pursuing professional development opportunities and staying up-to-date on the latest HR trends and best practices, HR professionals can model the kind of continuous learning and growth that they want to see in others.

Ultimately, building a strategic culture is not just about what HR does, but how they do it. By leading by example and embodying the values and behaviors they want to see in others, HR professionals can be powerful agents of change and help drive the company’s success.

As David Ulrich reminds us, “HR is not about being strategic. It’s about creating value.” By fostering collaboration, leading by example, and pursuing all of the other strategies we’ve discussed, HR professionals can create tremendous value for their organizations and help build cultures that are truly strategic.

In conclusion, building a strategic culture is one of the most important contributions that HR can make to an organization. By hiring for cultural fit, onboarding for strategic impact, training for strategic skills, recognizing and rewarding strategic behaviors, measuring and monitoring cultural health, fostering cross-functional collaboration, and leading by example, HR professionals can help create cultures that are aligned with the company’s strategy and that drive its success.

It’s not always easy work, but it is deeply rewarding. As David Ulrich says, “HR is not about HR. It’s about making the company better.” By embracing their role as cultural architects and strategic partners, HR professionals can do just that – make their companies better, one employee at a time.

Happy End

Of course, building a strategic culture is not a one-time event – it’s an ongoing process that requires constant attention and nurturing. HR professionals need to be proactive and persistent in their efforts, working closely with leaders across the organization to embed the desired culture into every aspect of the employee experience.

The payoff can be significant. Companies with strong, strategically aligned cultures tend to have higher employee engagement, lower turnover, and better business results. By embracing their role as cultural architects, HR professionals can help their companies turn strategy into reality – one employee at a time.

As David Ulrich puts it, “HR is not about HR. It’s about delivering value to the business.” By building a strategic culture, HR professionals can do just that – deliver value to the business and help drive its success for years to come.