Culture eats strategy…

Culture-eats-strategyCulture eats strategy for breakfast.
— Peter Drucker

…and for lunch.
— Coffman and Sorensen

Versions of Drucker’s quote have been circulating since before there was an Internet. What makes it resonate with our experience as leaders? This month we’ll be exploring challenges associated with shaping organizational culture.

The Strategy& company defines culture as an organization’s “self-sustaining patterns of behaving, feeling, thinking, and believing.”  Partners Jon Katzenbach and Paul Lienwald  recently hosted a webinar on organizational strategy and culture.  They identified a “crisis in strategy” caused when organizations take too many approaches at the same time, leading to lack of staff and leadership confidence in organizational direction.

To resolve this issue, they point out that leaders must understand an organization’s strengths and its culture in order to:

  • Choose a strategy that fits the culture
  • Leverage cultural strengths to enable transformation
  • Balance cultural weaknesses

How would you define your organization’s culture? How can you work within and outside of the culture to build effective strategy?

Dee Anne Bonebright


How I found my voice or what is that awful screeching sound?!

by guest blogger Ramon Padillo Jr.

findyourvoiceI am writing to you today because someone was kind enough to say that my communications style was “effective and distinctive.” I am taking that as a compliment but now that I re-read that –hmm? In any case, I would like to share with you why my communications come across as they do and why they tend to work for me – both of which are a product of training and experience.

Back in the Stone Age (1987), I was a fresh young MBA student at the University of Louisville straight out of my undergraduate studies in a class called “Leadership” taught by T. Ballard Morton. Mr. Morton has been an Executive in Residence at the College of Business and Public Administration of the University of Louisville since 1983. He is a retired high-powered business executive and chairman of several boards and a graduate of Yale. Teaching the class on leadership was his way of giving back. I mention all of this because of the impression he made on me.

In his class, we read a management book a week (How to Get your Point Across in 30 Seconds or Less, A Whack on the Side of the Head, and other management best sellers at the time). We had to write a one-page memo to him for each book as if he was the CEO and we were management, explaining to him why we wasted our time reading the book and why he should too. He was quite the taskmaster and my memos often bled red. That said, he drove home the points: 1) Your audience is busy, 2) Grab their attention and make it personal, 3) Say what you need your audience to do –right away!

I took his teachings to heart and entered the business world. Fast forward a couple of years and I end up teaching classes as an adjunct professor at U of L and writing for the publication Tech Republic. I quickly learned that his admonitions for writing worked the same for speaking and also discovered that the best way for me to grab a reader’s attention was through humor.

My classes enjoyed the fact that my lectures were less structured than most and they felt that I was addressing each person individually. I did the same with my blogs for Tech Republic. I knew that if I could grab my audience quickly and then make them feel personally engaged, I would hold their attention throughout the article. “Flip your writing on its head to communicate more effectively” is an article I wrote in 2007 that still gets reads today.

Lastly, unless I need to use the power of my position, like when I am complaining to a vendor, I write and speak as a regular Joe. Stodgy and stuffy writing will usually get you thrown in the trash–unless it’s a subpoena–and who wants one of those!

I hope this little jaunt through my memory has been useful for you. I will add that my communication style may also be a little bit innate. I can remember distinctly in high school giving a speech on parent’s day and leading off at the podium with “Do you have VD?” I had everyone’s rapt attention.

Ramon Padillo Jr. is the Vice Chancellor and Chief Information Officer at Minnesota State Colleges and Universities. MnSCU ITS collaborates with campus staff, faculty, presidents and the system office to meet their information needs and the needs of external customers and stakeholders by providing quality, timely, reliable information technology services. Ramon and his communication insights were highlighted in an earlier post by Dee Anne. You can follow Ramon at @R_Padilla_Jr

Todd Thorsgaard

Talk straight

honest abe“If I were two-faced, would I be wearing this one?” – Abraham Lincoln

As leaders we can sometimes create our own communication noise, by not communicating clearly, leaving out important information, or glossing over difficult conversations. In one of my favorite leadership books, The Speed of Trust, Stephen M.R. Covey, discusses the importance of talking straight which not only leads to more effective communication, but increases trust in an organization.  Abraham Lincoln, joking about himself in the quote above, embodied the behavior of talking straight and even his rivals who might not have agreed with him, knew where he stood and respected him.

In his book, Covey says, “most people don’t flat-out lie – at least not blatantly.” But they may beat around the bush, withhold information, use double-talk, flattery, positioning, posturing, or “spinning” to manipulate other people’s thoughts, feelings, or actions. These behaviors lead to employees discounting the words of their leaders and becoming skeptical and cynical, creating all kinds of communication noise.

Think about the last difficult conversation you had with an employee. Perhaps you were addressing some performance issues. Were you able to talk straight? Or did you beat around the bush? What kept you from talking straight? Fear of hurting their feelings? A lack of courage? Fear of the consequences?

Covey advises leaders to learn to get to the point quickly, saying that “if you’re explaining, you’re losing.” He clearly and simply describes the specific behaviors leaders must adopt to talk straight:


  • Be honest
  • Tell the truth
  • Let people know where you stand
  • Use simple language
  • Call things what they are
  • Demonstrate integrity


  • Don’t manipulate people or distort facts
  • Don’t spin the truth
  • Don’t leave false impressions

What has helped you talk straight in a difficult situation, where it might be easier to avoid a difficult conversation? What strategies did you use?



Seek out bad news

bad news“No one loves the messenger who brings bad news.” ― Sophocles, Antigone

One way of communicating through the noise is to actively seek out bad news in your organization. Leaders who routinely seek out bad news are able to address problems before they fester and avoid major missteps in their organizations. However, people are often hesitant to bring bad news to their leaders. They fear looking bad. Or showing someone else up. They don’t want to disappoint. Or as Sophocles wrote in his play long ago, they fear being the messenger.

So what can you do as a leader to encourage a culture of honest feedback, where people are not afraid to deliver bad news? In her blog post: Six ways you can encourage feedback and get bad news from your team, Kristin Robinson of Brio Leadership has some excellent advice for leaders:

  1. Admit your mistakes.  Nothing is better than admitting your own mistakes to create an open and honest culture.  When the boss admits her mistakes, she makes it OK for others to do so also.
  2. Actively seek feedback.  Ask open and honest questions in meetings and then listen more than you talk.  Actively listen to each person, acknowledging the contribution.  Your position as boss connotes power over others, causing your team to be cautious of making you mad.  So, encourage your team to speak up.
  3. Control your emotions when receiving feedback.  Be hyper-aware of your body language and facial expressions when you receive feedback.  Killing the messenger by getting angry, cynical or mocking will ensure that person will never give you honest feedback again.
  4. Thank people for feedback. Sincerely express gratitude for opinions and observations you receive from your team.  Keep an open mind and consider the merit of what is offered.
  5. Spend time with the troops. Leaders who spend time walking around and talking to people who do not report directly to them open up communication and makes themselves real to the people who do the work. People are more apt to provide feedback to someone who appears emotionally and physically accessible.
  6. Hire an executive coach. One of the jobs of an executive coach is to help you seek feedback and learn more about yourself – your personality, your strengths and weaknesses, your mental models and habitual emotional reactions.  A coach will help you understand how and why others react to you and you to them.

How are you at seeking out bad news?  Here are some questions for you to consider:

  • Do I create a safe environment for my folks to report problems and concerns?
  • Do I really want to hear the bad news?  
  • Am I consistent over time in actively seeking and rewarding feedback?  

Anita Rios

Communicating through the clash of the generations

gener_gap-wzpiuhI just finished facilitating a three-day leadership development program and the topic of trying to communicate with a multi-generational workforce came up repeatedly. Leaders were frustrated by what they perceived as lack of attention, too much formality, too little formality, uncertainty if their message was getting across, subtle put-downs of different styles, and the general tension among team members. Sound familiar?

The unique clash of all four generations in the workplace at the same time forces leaders to be strategic in planning and delivering their messages. Dana Brownlee, founder, owner and president of Professionalism Matters, offers 10 tips to help you navigate your multi-generational communication landscape.

  1. Match formality to the culture: understand the overall culture of your organization and set clear expectations for team members.
  2. Use multiple communication avenues: develop flexibility and comfort with multiple methods and modes. This is similar to “8 times, 8 ways” that Anita mentioned last week.
  3. Individualize your approach: utilize the platinum rule – “treat others as they want to be treated.” Observe how your team members communicate with you and attempt to mirror that during your communications with them.
  4. Understand value differences: communication styles often represent deeply held values. Examples include respect for experience, accepting everyone’s ideas, a belief in collaboration, or relying on expertise can relate to a preference for texting everyone, holding a meeting or developing a formal request for information. Understanding that and respecting preferences builds trust and facilitates communication.
  5. Be aware of motivating factors: everyone has a different reason for why they work and that can affect their preferred communication style.
  6. Ask, don’t assume: take responsibility to ask and understand why your team members use different communication styles.
  7. Be willing to learn: gain confidence in using a wider range of communication methods and techniques. Continue to sharpen your skills and practice using a wide variety of tools, and delivery styles.
  8. Be willing to teach: help your team members learn how to use a wider variety of communication styles as a part of their professional development.
  9. Acknowledge the differences: take time and encourage your team members to share their different communication preferences. Provide opportunities for your team members to explore and better understand each others preferences and styles in a safe setting, before it becomes a point of conflict.
  10. Don’t take it personally: remind yourself that it is not all about you!

Todd Thorsgaard

Planning for communication

communicationAs leaders, one important strategy for communicating through the noise is to have a communications plan. Taking time to identify key messages, audiences, and delivery methods will help you to make your important points and to hear what others have to say.

Research from the GuideSpark HR firm showed that organizations continue to use traditional communication methods: 75% use email, 63% use print materials, and 46% use live meetings. At the same time employees, particularly millennials, are asking for communications they can access on mobile devices (44%) and less complex messages that are easier to understand (56%).

The company has created a brief guide with ten tips for creating employee communication strategies. Tips included:

  1. Create a theme. As I mentioned last time, our IT vice chancellor used a “going to the clouds” theme for the recent software upgrade. It gave employees an easy way to remember and track the messages.
  2. Put employees at the center. Focus on what employees need to know to understand what’s in it for them. If you’re not sure what that is, consider holding focus groups to learn more about their needs.
  3. Use multiple channels. As Anita mentioned last week, think about communicating eight times in eight different ways.
  4. Focus on the key points to be sure your message is short, relevant, personal, targeted to the right people, and includes a call to action.
  5. Leverage technology, such as creating employee groups on FaceBook or providing mobile links to key communications.
  6. Pay attention to results, so you can promote what is working well.

What are your go-to communication strategies?  What other options can you include to strengthen the message?

Dee Anne Bonebright

Is your message getting heard?

message heard“The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.”
— George Bernard Shaw

Yesterday, I was reminded yesterday again why it is so important for leaders to communicate an important message multiple times and in multiple ways. A couple weeks ago a vendor had sent all our 31 institutions invoices billing them for the next year of service, even though our contract with the vendor expires at the end of September. I thought I had done my due diligence by sending out a clearly-worded email message letting HR directors know that they should not pay the invoice. I followed it up with an announcement in our HR newsletter, just to reinforce the email message. Still, I shouldn’t have been surprised yesterday when I got a call from a campus asking whether they should pay the invoice or not.

People are bombarded with thousands of messages a day, so it’s no wonder they may miss an important message if it only comes across their desk once or twice. In fact, my colleague Todd is always fond of saying that we as leaders should think of communicating important messages “8 times, 8 ways.”

It’s easy to blame the listener for their inattentiveness. However, it really is the job of leaders to make sure that their message is clear, consistent, and frequent enough to not only catch the attention of their audience, but to stick. If I’ve communicated my message, but it hasn’t been received or heard, then as one of my favorite playwrights says, the communication is just an illusion.

Today, I’m going to follow up with additional communication strategies to make sure that none of those invoices get paid in error. What strategies do you use when trying to get your message heard?

Anita Rios