Harvard Business’ tip of the day this morning was to put culture before strategy in a turnaround.  “To right an organization headed for trouble, you need to build a culture that supports strategy implementation.”

How true this is!  Not just for turnarounds, but for any type of major organizational event.  Early in my career, the hotel company I worked for merged with another.  There were about nine of us working in corporate HR from both sides of the merger, and we stumbled just integrating our own team never mind the rest of the organization.  The VP of HR from the other company, Cynthia, was infatuated with efficiency, centralization and standardization.  I still remember how proudly she presented some of her systems for a new hotel takeover to us: she had pre-made files that could simply be installed in the new hotel’s HR office, and ready-made employee handbooks, and pre-programmed takeover presentations.  On our side, we had always spent three times as much time and effort as she had on a takeover; we’d tried to understand the previous systems of the new hotel, and created customized documents and presentations that reflected the need for the hotel’s staff to keep some of their old ways and make still enough changes to fit in with us.

Cynthia couldn’t understand why we weren’t thrilled about her time-saving ideas.  She tried to sell us on her systems over and over, touting the benefits and talking about how it would free up our time to focus on other things, like training and employee engagement.  She was right that we would have loved more time for developing and engaging employees; what she didn’t understand was that we felt her systems would have worked at cross-purposes to the goal of employee engagement.  We valued individuality and freedom of expression, and she valued efficiency and standardization.  We believed that employees who are forced to follow a corporate SOP for every procedure will lack opportunities to develop their managerial skills and thus will be less engaged; she believed that supervisors wanted to have things be simpler and easier on the administrative side so they could focus their time elsewhere.

Who was right?  It didn’t matter.  Until we aligned the values, and then aligned “the way we do things around here” based on those shared values, we weren’t going to get anywhere with anything else.  And if HR can’t align, what about the rest of the organization?

I wouldn’t say the merger failed.  It just took a very, very long time to take the speed bumps out of the road; many years, in fact.  And we lost a lot of good people in the process.   Eventually, I was one of them.

If you’re going through a turnaround, acquisition, or merger heed Peter Drucker’s warning: Culture eats strategy for breakfast.

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