Culture still eats strategy for breakfast: Insight from our roundtable discussion

  • December 05, 2023

Recently I had the opportunity to participate in a roundtable discussion with leaders from diverse industries, exploring the ever-evolving landscape of workplace culture, employee experiences and the critical nexus between these factors and customer satisfaction. It was clear to all of us that organizational culture still eats strategy for breakfast (thank you Peter Drucker). From this engaging conversation, five pivotal themes emerged, shedding light on the present and future of the professional world.

1. The tech conundrum: Balancing efficiency and engagement

The past few years, we have witnessed a seismic shift in the integration of technology into the workplace, accelerated by the pandemic. While we embraced various tools and platforms, we often overlooked the human perspective and failed to create a holistic tech ecosystem. This approach led to a steep learning curve for employees, who had to figure out how to make the most of these tools on their own. The tools we provide our workforce and the ways we use those tools and technologies are an important cornerstone of our organizational culture, setting the tone for communication, priorities and productivity within the organization.

Overall, the implementation of new technology should support teams, rather than hinder progress. For example, in fields like healthcare, the seamless integration of electronic medical records is vital, providing frontline workers with the ability to focus on patient care, not system navigation. Leaders can harness the power of new technologies to empower their people to be more creative, productive and engaged at work.

2. The return-to-office dilemma: The new normal of choice

The return-to-office question is a hot topic filled with strong and diverse opinions. Some crave the camaraderie of the office, while others cherish the comfort of remote work in their pajamas. Companies wrestle with real estate use, with some seeking to maximize office space and others shedding it. The writing on the wall is clear, however: organizations that provide genuine choice regarding when and where employees work are poised for success.

The challenge lies in fostering engagement and connection across all work arrangements, focusing on inclusion, serendipitous “watercooler” interactions and continued learning opportunities for all. It also means we owe it to our workforces to be intentional when we ask them to do something that is different than their preference. For example, if we’re going to ask people to gather onsite, let’s make sure there are good and meaningful reasons for those people to put on real pants and shoes.

3. Culture creation, transformation and stabilization: A prized investment

It’s been wonderful to see the spike in media attention about workforce culture, but it’s even more exciting to see organizations putting their money where their mouth is and investing in senior and executive-level leaders who focus exclusively on employee engagement and culture. The rapid transformations of the past few years have either fortified existing cultures, weakened them or generated multiple, entrenched cultures within a single organization. Any time a group adds or subtracts members, there’s an impact to organizational dynamics and the elements of culture that are drive by grassroots behavior.

Nowhere is that more visible than in companies who are heavy into M&A activity. The overly simplified culture of due diligence that is typically done — if it is done at all — is often restricted to generic surveys and narrow conversations among principals who are solely focused on making the deal work. The pressure to achieve ROI on acquisitions places immense strain on organizations to integrate quickly, often neglecting the crucial step of designing the target state culture and making sure that all decisions align with and promote that culture across the entire organization.

4. Leadership skills in a virtual world: A growing need

Leading a team that operates in a shared physical space is notably different (and typically easier) than leading a hybrid team that spans various time zones, cultures and work preferences. It requires a deep understanding of how to optimize the performance of teams that collaborate across different time zones, encompass diverse cultures and have varying preferences and requirements for synchronous and asynchronous work. It also requires the ability to effectively harness these differences to foster inclusivity and drive superior outcomes. We find ourselves in the midst of a perfect storm, where the very real need for a greater range of intricate leadership skills has surged but, paradoxically, investment in leadership skill development appears to be at a near-all-time low. While there is a slight shift in spending towards these development programs, they're often the first areas to face cutbacks during periods of economic slowdown or challenges.

5. Rethinking careers: Skills over jobs and ladders

The fundamental principles of organizational structures have remained largely unchanged for decades. However, the external, competitive and internal forces exerted on organizations have undergone significant transformations. The imperative for resilience, defined here as the ability to flexibly and adaptively respond to market needs, competitive pressures and technological disruptions, isn't only real but also enduring. This begs the question as to why, then, our approach to organizing work hasn’t become more resilient. Our new normal of constant and disruptive change may finally signal the shift away from jobs and towards skills.

Deconstructing jobs (a bundled set of tasks) in favor of needed skills delivers the flexibility for organizations and individuals to combine talents in different and flexible ways to meet the changing needs of the organization. Consequently, this calls for a radical departure from traditional notions of career paths and progression. While the concept of a career "lattice," as opposed to a career "ladder," has long existed, it has often been relegated to the status of an "alternative" career path. What if, instead of viewing it as a path for those uninterested in leadership, we consider it as THE model for exceptional leadership?

Are you prepared to navigate the future of work?

Our roundtable was a rich and robust conversation that I won’t soon stop thinking about. The need for agility, adaptability and investment in culture, technology and leadership skills has never been more apparent. The future belongs to organizations that recognize the evolving needs of their workforce and are prepared to navigate this changing landscape.

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Kim Curley

Kim Curley has spent her career focused on the human side of business, enabling leaders and their organizations to do more, do better, and to thrive through change. As the Workforce Readiness Consulting Practice Leader for NTT DATA Services, Kim leads advisory consultants who deliver people-side consulting solutions that help our clients solve their most complex business challenges.

Kim is also a founder of Women Inspire NTT DATA, the company’s first employee resource group. She launched the Charlotte Chapter in March 2018, which she continues to lead, and serves as the chair of the global steering committee. She is also a published author and sought-after industry speaker on the topic of human and organizational impacts of automation and other advanced technologies and is the co-lead of the Talent Development Forum of the Executive’s Club of Chicago.


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