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    The Path to Performance Runs Through Your Culture

    Written by Yulia Gumeniak, Kieran Colville, Jerry Johnston

    “Culture eats strategy for breakfast” has been a popular thought leadership headline for years and a management truism for even longer. It’s a warning to leaders: ignore culture at your peril. 

    But, at a time when every leader is feeling alarm fatigue, who needs another warning? How about a way forward instead? That way forward should give leaders clear, concrete guidance for shaping their culture, given the powerful role it plays in organizations’ successes and failures. Take stories from global appliance manufacturer Haier, and Microsoft under Satya Nadella’s leadership, as prime positive examples. On the other hand, take stories about legendary companies who lost their way once their cultures became complacent as examples of culture’s high stakes. 

    So, what advice would we give leaders about shaping their culture—something that, whether they know it or not, is the lifeforce of their organization? 

    The right culture eats animates strategy. 

    An organization with a positive, affirming culture that does not actively support its purpose and strategy is, at best, idle—like a boat with a pleasant crew but no wind in its sails. And when that organization’s leadership creates a five-year plan for how to achieve sustainably superior performance, those plans may remain on the page unless and until culture helps bring them to life.  

    That’s not to say culture is the only factor that allows organizations to deliver on their strategy, but we’d say that it’s the most consequential because it permeates all other factors, from how leaders behave and make decisions to the types of candidates who self-select into joining your company. 

    The point here is that culture shouldn’t be viewed as eating strategy. It’s not helpful to look at the two as forces in conflict. Instead, we think of culture as an animating force for strategy—translating it into performance. 

    Culture isn’t unmanageable—you just need to know where to focus. 

    For many leaders, culture is an abstract concept that is not easily managed. And when they look for help, what they hear will often over-simplify things: “Culture is how things are done around here” or “Culture is the worst behavior leaders are willing to tolerate”. 

    Both of those ideas are true. But for all their pithiness, leaders are no closer to knowing where to focus if they want to own and evolve their culture to support their business. Without clarity on how to really understand and shift culture, the work too often turns into an exercise in rewriting values. Culture is more than a writing exercise. 

    Culture is all the ways your organization acts (or doesn’t act) in service of your purpose and strategy. These are the defining elements of culture we recommend leaders consider: 

    • The values that articulate what you care about most as an organization 
    • The behaviors that drive your ability to collaborate, manage, and evolve 
    • The operating model that maps how you deliver value to customers and stakeholders 
    • The business activities that bring your value to market, rooted in the behaviors 
    • The systems and processes that shape and sustain your employees’ experience 
    • The talent, diversity, equity, and inclusion practices that call in and galvanize every employee 

    Not every culture translates purpose and strategy into performance—but a Total Culture does. 

    When the defining elements listed above are orchestrated and aligned, we call that a Total Culture. We use the word “Total” because everything is connected—your values, behaviors, activities, talent choices, systems, processes, and policies must align in support of your purpose and strategy. When some are misaligned, none of them work like they could.  

    We also use the word “Total” because everyone is involved. Senior leaders, strategy, HR, lines of business, communications, finance, customer support, and more—they all play a critical role, so we invite them into the conversation and equip them to bring culture to life in their everyday business activities, ultimately generating value for your customers and stakeholders.  

    By understanding, investing in, and bringing clarity to their organization’s Total Culture, leaders can maximize the full potential of their people, set positive change in motion, and deliver superior performance for all the people their business serves. 

    The thinking behind Total Culture. 

    Total Culture acknowledges culture’s complexity, and then offers concrete, actionable ways to talk about, represent, measure, own, and evolve the defining elements of a Total Culture. The approach is grounded in insights shaped over our decades of experience making businesses more human—and, plainly, in what we’ve seen work. 

    Purpose and strategy are starting points. 

    The starting point for Total Culture is the combination of purpose and strategy which represent your organization’s intentions for creating value. These ambitions, and how the organization needs to “act” to deliver on them, must be understood first to shape a culture that is fit for purpose. 

    Behaviors and business activities are focal points. 

    Total Culture demystifies culture by breaking down its defining elements (shown in Figure 2), aiming them toward your strategy and purpose, and guiding your teams to make changes that drive performance.

    Employee agency has a disproportionate effect on your employee experience and productivity: our data shows that employees with high agency are 3X more likely to be very satisfied, 4.2X more likely to stay with their employer, 1.4X more likely to advocate on behalf of their employer and 2.1X more likely to be very productive.

    At the heart of this are the behaviors that shape how employees execute critical business activities. Clear definition of expected behaviors enables your teams to have more ownership over everyday decisions, and more accountability for moving the organization towards its strategic goals. This distributed ownership (we’ll call it employee agency) allows your organization to make decisions faster and adapt to the changing environment you operate in.  

    Organizational behaviors 

    Behaviors are the building blocks of your culture because they guide the person-to-person interactions that bring culture to life most vividly every minute of the day. We analyze your culture through the lenses of nine critical behaviors to understand how well they support your organization’s ability to: 

    • Collaborate: How do leaders organize work and teams, communicate, and resolve conflict? 
    • Manage: How do leaders set priorities, measure progress, and define and reward good work? 
    • Evolve: How do leaders enable people, support them to grow, and adapt the organization in the face of challenges and opportunities? 

    Business activities 

    Behaviors drive how business activities are executed—impacting their quality and consistency. At the outset of a conversation about Total Culture, we will align on concrete business activities we want to impact so that we guide employees to apply new and retained behaviors where they matter most to your strategy and purpose. For example, how do behaviors specifically improve customer service, sales, production quality, operational efficiency, or research and development? 

    You can own and evolve your Total Culture to drive performance. We can help. Here’s how. 

    We demystify your culture by unpacking the defining elements and aligning them with your strategy and purpose.  We involve your people to shape the culture, and we enable your leaders to own it. 

    We provide insights into what aspects of your culture to retain and adjust to translate strategy into performance.  This enables us to develop a roadmap for change, and the means to bring your people on the journey to shift mindsets, embed new behaviors, and make change happen. 

    Finally, we equip your teams to embed and sustain culture. We help you build your own internal capability to understand, shape, and reshape your culture in service of the business you’re building. 

    There’s more ahead on Total Culture. 

    In the coming months, United Minds will publish a short series of guides and articles to prepare leaders to own, align, and evolve their organization’s Total Culture. Here are a few pieces you can look forward to next: 

    1. Demystifying Your Total Culture: A deeper look into our research methodology, Total Culture Scan, which helps us define the building blocks of your culture 
    1. Testing and Scaling Your Total Culture: How we use a Culture Change Plan to prepare leaders and their teams to take small steps toward big changes in their culture 
    1. Measuring Your Total Culture: Our recommendation for tracking progress and the impact of the work put into owning and evolving your Total Culture  

    Get in touch.  

    We want to help you own and evolve your Total Culture. If you want a stronger connection between Purpose, Strategy, and Performance, get in touch at We’d love to hear from you.