Culture Typically Trumps Strategy

Which is more important to an organization – culture or strategy?


Cheryl Bachelder, former CEO of Popeyes Louisiana Kitchen, explains why creating a positive culture and building relationships trumps strategy and ultimately drives success. Culture focuses on creating an environment where people feel safe enough to take bold risks and comfortable enough to grow in capabilities.

“For me, culture is the environment you create for work to be done,” Cheryl explains. “One of my employees said, if you create a safe environment for risk taking and personal growth, you'll always get the best outcome.”

Watch this video to learn more about how culture leads to more success.

Interviewer: Cheryl as big a believer as you are on strategy, you're a bigger believer in culture, so tell us how you define the culture at Popeyes in these seven years, what you're trying to do for corporate office and for your franchising and your customers.

Cheryl: Well, probably one of my favorite book titles on is "Culture Eats Strategy for Lunch." I kind of keep that in my mind because culture is very difficult to copy. It's very difficult for your competitors to copy your culture. They can copy your food, your environment of your restaurant, your light fixtures. There's just so many things they can just walk down the street and buy and copy but they cannot copy your people. And your people exhibit your culture.

So at Popeyes, we spend a lot more time talking about culture than strategy. Culture is a funny word. I'm not sure we're always clear on the definitions and so for me culture is the environment you create for work to be done. One of my employees said, if you create a safe environment for risk taking and personal growth, you'll always get the best outcome. So that's how I think about culture. Is our culture fostering a place where people feel safe enough to take bold risks and comfortable enough to grow in capabilities so that they are ready for the bold destination that we are going to go to?

I can't tell you how rare it is in corporate culture that you see a safe workplace environment. In fact, Maslow says the first human need after food is safety and I think that's not a well understood concept. If we actually cared enough to find out what made our employees feel safe enough to express concerns, safe enough to ask tough questions, safe enough to try a job they don't know how to do, safe enough to take a bold risk and investment, we're never going to find out about the potential of the organization if we can't create a safer harbor for them to practice.

So that's what culture is to me. Now, we've created a culture around our purpose and principles. And those purpose and principles basically describe how we will operate on a daily basis and they give us language by which to evaluate whether we're on culture or not. So if one of our principles is "listen carefully," and we've got a person just going off and no interest in what the other person says, it gives us language. We can say, "We really like 'listen carefully' and am not seeing the room. Could you bring that to the room? Could we hear out this person's point of view?"

And so we use it to check each other and we hold each other accountable to what the culture is. Then you can critique without it being personal. You're critiquing. We have a plaque. It says "be humble" so it's not me judging you. It's just we have this plaque and we'd like to live it, so could you re-frame that and not make it about you. It gives us the language to hold each other accountable to our principles.

Interviewer: I've made an observation about your culture today being with you and part of it is seeing you walk around the halls here and people approach you not out of fear but have been free to come up and talk to you and say hey what about this what about that. There's a freedom that even though you're the CEO and there's respect there, there's not a fear there. And so part of that humility, that servant leadership. Is that part of your leadership management model walking around that's been talked about many times before? Because I think that sometimes people think that culture is we're going to throw a big event at a ballroom and that's going to define culture. But I've seen your culture defined by you just walking around today and talking to your staff. Is that something that you do on a regular basis?

Cheryl: Well, the heart and soul of leadership are relationships. Relationships are what create experiences and experiences are what create outcomes and so I believe in knowing people. I believe that the highest way to show dignity to another human is to express interest in them and to want to know whether it's know about their work or know about their family or know about the movie they went to last night. To me, it's a privilege of leadership to have that opportunity to build relationships with another person.

And so relationships then build that experience of a safe environment in which to do work and then they give you their very best. I often say, "I must know you to grow you." That's the way I teach it to people. That if I know nothing about you, there's not a chance that I can figure out where to best place you in the organization, how to best stretch you, how to best help you compensate for your weaknesses, which we all have, right?

It comes down to the amount of time I invest knowing you determines how well am in a position to lead and position people for success. It's not just a nice to do to be in relationship with your people. The fact that I know Renee Lewis is running a triathlon this weekend and she is a manager in my company, not a director, not a VP, not a C-suite person. On Monday when I come in and ask her about her life's ambition to be a triathlon runner and best in her age group creates a bond and a relationship out of which much great work will come.

Cheryl Bachelder

Cheryl A. Bachelder is the former CEO Popeyes® Louisiana Kitchen, Inc. and author of Dare to Serve: How to Drive Superior Results by Serving Others. She is known for her crisp strategic thinking, franchisee-focused approach, superior ...

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