We founded The Board Whisperers as we deeply felt that organisations can benefit from looking with multiple lenses simultaneously.
In our corporate experience, we often found that one of the lenses through which leaders look is strategy, discussed while preparing a business plan, the strategic plan, the direction and the goals. Another lens, often looked through in other parts of the organisation, is culture, often dissociated from what the company or its board tries to achieve though. As if it we look at two separate worlds. We like to take it a step further. For is, culture is looking beyond the visible and tangible elements. It is equally important to assess what is on the table as it is to look under the carpet.
There are often underlying patterns preventing people to reach their goals. When leaders are willing to be transparent about what’s on the table and look at patterns and at what’s under the carpet, space is created for new opportunities to arise.
Strategy x Culture
Strategy offers a formal logic for the company’s goals and orients people around them. Strategy sets the direction and focus, elaborates on the business plan and formal environment for employees to understand the organisation’s goals.
Culture helps accomplishing goals by encompassing them in the organisation’s shared values and beliefs. These need to go hand in hand.
As you likely know, Peter Drucker once said “culture eats strategy for breakfast”, meaning that the culture of a company determines its success, regardless how effective the strategy may be. He pointed out the importance of the human factor in any company. No matter how detailed and solid a strategy is, if the people executing it don’t nurture the appropriate culture, projects will fail. We like to take a more holistic approach.
Culture in an organisation is the way people ‘do things’. Unwritten rules exert influence on the behaviour of the employees and only by navigating actual business challenges real life and real time, a leader will get a sense of this ‘culture in action’.
It is crucial for leaders to stay in touch with reality, since, when something sounds too good to be true on paper, most of the times it is. Only when presented with the good, the bad and the ugly, leaders will FEEL what it means instead of just THINK what it might mean. Also, the way people deal with accountability, make decisions and take actions should be taken into account while observing a culture. Only then, it is possible to see beyond the visible elements and understand the ways in which people interact.
Bottom line: it is super important to assess what is on the table and under the carpet.
What’s on the table?
What’s on the table entails all relevant information, provided from different angles to enable leaders to make sound decisions. This can be views and opinions from different levels in the organisation, relevant stakeholders, including the knowns and unknowns. Often, we as humans tend to overcomplicate things, but most of the time, the answers are already available in the organisation. If only we would take time to zoom out…. and listen to the different perspectives available. When leaders are transparent about what’s on the table and the different pieces of the puzzle are taken along, the best way forward will shape itself.
By sharing a plan before it has fully materialized, leaders can tap into collective wisdom. Often, when people are confronted with a question, they need to know what their options or choices are to bounce their ideas of. That does not always mean that the presented options are best fit to execute on. People will feel whether it aligns with what they believe is needed. Maybe there are alternatives that are not taken into account yet. When the feedback or alternatives are incorporated into the options, better options might arise and the chosen direction will gain support in the organisation.
What’s under the carpet?
In various organisations that we have worked with, we noticed that there are often underlying, invisible patterns preventing people to reach their goals. When leaders are willing and have the energy to look at these and want to understand what’s under the carpet, space is created to invite new perspectives and with it, new opportunities. In these situations, solutions often present themselves, as long as leaders are open for it.
When we speak with boards or leadership teams about bringing in new perspectives to the table, we never intend it to be ‘just’ a conversation piece. For us, this is an intervention as it always has implications for how teams and leaders see each other and interact going forward. By addressing the unseen, initiatives will gain traction by removing blockers that will appear as part of the process. By helping them reveal which interactions are helpful or not, the root causes of these behaviours will become clear and subsequently a new and better equilibrium will be able to emerge.
A holistic approach
From a leadership style point of view, leaders will need to merge masculine (result driven, rational and goal oriented) behaviour with more feminine aspects of getting things done (creativitiy, intuition, sensing, connection, sensitivity, supportivenes). All this to shed light on the information under the carpet and get it on to the table. From a contextual point of view, it is necessary that to have a good bedding for new initiatives to flourish. To explore whether this is the case, questions that we ask are e.g.: Are the right people involved making the necessary connections? What remains unsaid? or What is whispering and waiting to be heard?
Improving the health of an organisation asks for genuine commitment and involvement. Boards or top teams will need to set the example. As Patrick Lencioni states (4 pillars of high performing cultures):
“The single biggest factor determining whether an organization is going to get healthier — or not — is the genuine commitment and active involvement of the persons in charge.”
Making things happen
With strategy and culture hand in hand, the remaining element is execution. As Dr. Patti Fletcher, describes in Forbes:
“Many business thinkers believe that culture and strategy are two sides of the same coin. They are not. They are part of the same side of the coin. So, in that case: what’s on the other side then? Execution. Execution brings culture and strategy to life”
When you put strategy and culture on the same side of the coin, you have to reimagine your cultural constructs, meaning, how culture is experienced by people and how they really behave.” -
When we considered what drives ‘making things happen’, we arrived at an equation which takes along strategy, culture, including the tangible and intangible elements. Looking at culture means exploring beyond the obvious, visible elements. It is equally important to assess what is on the table as it is to look under the carpet. Underlying patterns often prevent people to reach their goals. Leaders who are willing to look at these patterns and at what’s under the carpet, create space for new opportunities to arise.
Our equation for making things happen:
Inspired Execution = Strategy x Culture x (what’s on the table ÷ what’s under the carpet)
If we deconstruct the equation:
Strategy: Strategy offers a formal logic for the company’s goals and orients people around them. We think leaders should incorporate collective wisdom in their organisation.
Culture: Culture expresses goals through values and beliefs and guides activity through shared assumptions and group norms. Take time to see how people go about doing in their work. What is actually happening on the grounds?
What’s on the table: Is about being transparent about what is at stake: plusses, minuses, the bold, the beautiful, the bad and the ugly.
What’s under the carpet: Sense the unsaid/unseen/unheard, unwritten rules, he or she who we not speak about or listen to…
By offering space to express how culture is experienced by people and to reimagine what good looks like, teams will be empowered to take inspired action. There is a sound bedding for initiatives to flourish, the culture supports the bigger picture and where blockers are removed, flow returns!
This is what we arrived at so far. Do share your own thoughts, ideas and additions as we are expanding on this theme.
Suggestions for further reads:
It is not culture vs strategy anymore, culture is strategy, Forbes
The Leader’s Guide to Corporate Culture, HBR
The 4 pillars of high performing culures, The Growth Faculty
About The Board Whisperers: We help founders, boards and executive teams thrive by transforming their most pressing challenges or vision into inspiring action. By creating space for new perspectives, we stretch the boundaries of the possible to let new opportunities arise.