Don’t Confuse Culture with Strategy

Culture is the Who and How We Work; Strategy is What We Do

Don't Confuse Culture with Strategy

GUEST POST from Shep Hyken

Culture is quite different from strategy. It’s what a company is and stands for. Peter Drucker, the legendary management guru, once said, “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.” It’s not that strategy isn’t important. It absolutely is. However, culture must come first. Then strategy must align with the culture.

One of several definitions of culture by Merriam-Webster is:

“The set of shared attitudes, values, goals and practices that characterizes an institution or organization.”

That is exactly what culture should be. However, there can be problems.

Some companies state their culture in mission, vision and/or values statements. However, those are just words—they are meaningless if not lived. And they can’t be aspirational. They must be true in the moment. A culture that is not actively practiced by leadership and employees is just a dream—just words on paper that are somewhat meaningless, regardless of how well-written and aspirational they are.

For a culture to be successful, leadership must live it and be the role model for others to emulate. And while most people think of leadership as the executives who sit in the C-suite, it is really anyone of authority. It could be anyone in management, in a supervisory position, or anyone who has direct reports. And while leaders must be role models, everyone must know and understand the culture. In the “perfect” organization, everyone is in alignment.

That is why Target is a great case study for how the right culture works. The title of this article is a quote from Christina Hennington, chief growth officer of Target, who sat on a panel at the recent 2023 National Retail Federation (NRF) Big Show. Hennington says, “We use culture as a guidepost, as a set of filters for the decisions we make in the business, both big and small. That’s all in the pursuit of our purpose, which is to help all families discover the joy of everyday life.”

Just last year, Target was No. 2 in Fortune’s Best Workplaces in Retail. It was also No. 1 in People’s Companies that Care, and No. 12 in Fortune’s 100 Best Companies to Work For. Those are some fine accolades, and with good reason. A RetailWire article noted that in 2021, when most companies were struggling to hire and keep employees, Target had its lowest turnover rate in five years. A good paycheck is a start. Good benefits are also important, and they go beyond medical benefits. For example, Target has a debt-free college program in which all full-time and part-time employees can participate. Another benefit is that Target likes to promote from within. Employees starting on hourly wages can become leaders. They take care of their people, and in turn their people take care of their customers.

Mark Ryski, founder and CEO of HeadCount Corporation, says, “Target continues to set the standard for driving up worker pay. I can only believe there is one key reason why—because a well-compensated, appreciated, happy workforce delivers better results. Imagine how it must feel to work for a company like Target that continues to look for ways to enrich employees.”

Melissa Kremer, EVP and chief human resources officer at Target, said, “Our team is at the heart of our strategy and success, and their energy and resilience keep us at the forefront of meeting the changing needs of our guests year after year.”

So, Target has nailed a big part of the culture, in that it has taken the words on paper to the people who work there. The message from Target’s leadership is clear. Build a culture that starts with a focus on your own people. Take care of them, and they will in turn, take care of the company, which includes the company’s customers.

Does that sound familiar? If you’ve been following my work for any length of time, it probably reminds you of my Employee Golden Rule: Do unto employees as you want done unto your customers. And it looks like it’s working.

This article originally appeared on

Image Credit: Pexels

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