“Culture Eats Strategy For Lunch”: What Does That Even Mean?!

By Lilian Abrams, Ph.D., MBA, MCC, ESIA

As an executive coach, the company culture in which my clients work is very important.  About that, one thing I have heard for many years, but never “clicked” for me, was “culture eats strategy for lunch”.  All I could picture when I heard this was a brown paper lunch bag… and no visual image for “culture”, much less how that might “eat” strategy.  While I have developed and shared many learnings and truisms about what does and does not work for leaders in organizations…this saying just wasn’t one of them.

Until two weeks ago.  Finally, I have a perfect example to illustrate what this saying about culture actually means, in reality.

I am currently coaching “Martina” and “Alain”, who are two key senior functional leaders for “Apex”, a huge global financial services firm.  As is normal for large organizations, Apex has an extensive, elaborate succession plan for all the leaders in the company. These plans are updated annually, and they include staff at most levels.  

Then, “Donna” was announced as the new CEO. And these elaborate, well-established succession plans were thrown completely out the window. 

For Alain and Martina, “Thomas” was the C-suite leader representing their function on the CEO’s most senior leadership team. I had heard that Thomas had hoped to become CEO himself.  Not long after the decision about Donna was publicized, it was announced that Thomas would soon be leaving Apex altogether. More surprising than this, however, was that, rather than selecting one of Thomas’s two most likely identified successors as his replacement, Donna instead had reorganized Thomas’s function and split it up into multiple parts.  Donna then appointed other people, from disparate areas of Apex, to head up each of these parts, with them all jointly serving as co-equal leaders for the function.

Further, it was said that these new heads lacked the expected qualifications for their new positions, which others in Apex already had (including the overlooked “heir-apparents”.  What they did have, in abundance, was something that wasn’t showing up anywhere on the official succession planning charts:  They had known Donna for a long time, and she trusted them.  

Apex’s culture has long been one that is strongly relationship-oriented, and the longer and broader the relationships one has, the better. Many people have worked at Apex for decades. This means that they have “grown up” together, at work, with their Apex colleagues. They also had a chance to rotate through many different types of working relationships with each other over time. This shared experience and constellation of relationships allowed them to witness each other’s behaviors under lots of different types of pressures and situations, and get to deeply understand who each other are. This long-tenured cadre now is ascending to Apex’s upper ranks – together. 

It is not surprising, then, that “newcomers/outsiders” like Thomas and his official successors listed on the succession plans actually don’t tend to last long at Apex. For example, the two successors who had been listed for Thomas have “only” been there for 7 years (or less,) and had mostly stayed in roles located only within Thomas’s function. One of them told me, “Of all the people who were hired around the same time as me, I am only one left standing.”  Despite their qualifications, when it came time for Donna to choose who she wanted on her leadership team, it wasn’t the names on the plans that she considered.  She chose those who she felt she knew and could trust, as the ones she wanted in the roles closest to her. 

I have now added this true story to my collection, as an example for my executive coaching clients of “culture eating strategy for lunch.”  One takeaway I would suggest from it is the following:  In the absence of anything even more compelling to the contrary, if your organization’s culture requires long-term, trusting personal relationships to get work done, then all the succession plans in the world may not help you attain the most senior ranks. (However, there are other strategies that can be used – which is beyond the scope of this post!)