Culture Is the Way: A book review by Bob Morris

Culture Is the Way: How Leaders at Every Level Build an Organization for Speed, Impact, and ExcellenceMatt Mayberry
Wiley (February 2023)

“Culture eats strategy for breakfast.”  Peter Drucker

My take is that prevailing values in a workplace will always be more important to people than a strategy, even one that someone such as Drucker or Richard Rumelt has helped to formulate. This is what James O’Toole probably had in mind when suggesting (in Leading Change) that the greatest resistance to change tends to be cultural in nature, the result of what he so aptly characterizes as “the ideology of comfort and the tyranny of custom.”

Years ago, at one of GE’s annual meetings, its then chairman and CEO was asked his reasons for thinking so highly of small companies. Jack Welch replied, “For one, they communicate better. Without the din and prattle of bureaucracy, people listen as well as talk; and since there are fewer of them they generally know and understand each other. Second, small companies move faster. They know the penalties for hesitation in the marketplace. Third, in small companies, with fewer layers and less camouflage, the leaders show up very clearly on the screen. Their performance and its impact are clear to everyone. And, finally, smaller companies waste less. They spend less time in endless reviews and approvals and politics and paper drills. They have fewer people; therefore they focus on doing what is most important. Their people are free to direct their energy and attention toward the marketplace rather than fighting bureaucracy.”

I was again reminded of Welch’s observations as I began to read this book in which Matt Mayberry explains how and why culture “worlds enormous power. It is the deciding factor that can not only create an incredibly dynamic, innovative work[place but also drive extraordinary levels of execution in the marketplace.” If you think of an organization in horticultural terms, its leaders are “gardeners” who “grow” high-impact people who “blossom” when entrusted to their care. The “soil” they all share must be nourished frequently and protected constantly.

However different they may be in many respects, all organizations need effective leadership at all levels and in all areas of operation within the given enterprise. Consider this brief excerpt from Lao-tse’s Tao Te Ching:

“Learn from the people
Plan with the people
Begin with what they have
Build on what they know
Of the best leaders
When the task is accomplished
The people will remark
We have done it ourselves.”

Obviously, Matt Mayberry agrees: “The key to truly building a winning and world-class culture is to stay focused on the [begin italics] Magic Ingredient. [end italics] Leading a people-first organization should be the primary focus of any leader or manager looking to improve or enhance their culture. This is more important than attempting to change the culture solely with products, slogans, internal initiatives, and a pleasant working environment. Putting people — your people, the people you lead — at the center for everything will pay off in a significant way.”

How to keep “the main thing the main thing”? More specifically, how to bridge the gap between strategy and execution “to create a strong culture of getting important things done and soaring from one achievement to the next”? Matthew May wrote this book in direct and eloquent response to this question. A dedicated, diverse but cohesive culture really is the “magic ingredient” in a healthy organization. It is no coincidence that companies annually ranked among those most highly admired and best to work for are also among the companies that are most profitable, with the greatest cap value in their industry segment.

I urge those who read his brilliant book to keep in mind what an African proverb suggests: “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.” Wide and deep buy-in within the given workplace is imperative to build an organization for speed, impact, and excellence. Whatever their size and nature, all organizations need effective leadership at all levels and in all areas of operation. Saint Paul has much of value to say about all this in one of his first letters to Corinth when  discussing “many parts, one body.”

Those who share my high regard for this book are urged to check out CEO Excellence: The Six Mindsets That Distinguish the Best Leaders from the Rest, co-authored by Carolyn Dewar, Scott Keller, and Vikram Malhotra and published by Scribner (2022).



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