It may be fashionable to put culture above strategy in the leadership pecking order, but in the real world one supports the other.
The philosophical duel between those two titans of leadership competence – strategy and culture – began back in the early 1980s. Ever since, Hewlett-Packard’s cultural framework, ‘The HP Way’, has been held up as the shining example of culture’s place – a peg or two above strategy in the leadership pecking order.
When I joined HP’s human resources team in its UK head office in 1994, it was as far from the traditional office environment as it was possible to be.
If you were an HR professional in the 1990s, this was where you wanted to work. You wanted to walk the light-filled, plant-lined corridors, and see the fruit-filled kitchens and the modern, open-plan office floors.
You wanted to know if HP’s senior executives really “managed by wandering around” (they did), whether the employee car park was based on the revolutionary egalitarian principle of “park where you like” (it was) and whether the global CEO and the UK chief executive really did conduct monthly and weekly all-staff briefings via audio link (they did). You also wanted to know whether employee performance was, as legend went, Managed By Objectives (it was).
I had just left Liverpool Victoria Insurance, where they had different entrances to the office for different grades of staff, four different staff canteens depending on your management grade and status, and a tea lady who walked the corridors delivering tea to managers in their offices – but only if they were of the requisite grade (alas, I wasn’t). I left after only five days!
“The HP Way exemplified progressive corporate culture in action. But it’s also safe to say that at HP, strategy was everything.”
The HP Way exemplified progressive corporate culture in action. But it’s also safe to say that at HP, strategy was everything. It was just that culture was seen as being a key element of that strategy. HP’s founders, Bill Hewlett and Dave Packard, recognised that a fundamental element of setting and implementing a strategy was defining the type of culture needed to support it.
Alan Furniss, then general manager of HP’s strategically critical Computer Products Organisation in the UK, was one of the first truly strategic leaders I worked for. He recognised that the future of personal computing would see the consumer interacting directly with manufacturers like Hewlett-Packard. Back in the early 1990s, the dominant model was the Reseller Model, with third-party resellers sitting between the consumer and the manufacturer. But Furniss set out to change this. He put the name Hewlett-Packard (HP) on the shirt of Tottenham Hotspur Football Club in the English Premier League. The brand became hugely visible to consumers around the UK and Europe. In one masterful strategic strike, the path of direct sales from the manufacturer to the consumer was set.
If ‘The HP Way’ stands tall as one of clearest examples of a corporate cultural framework, albeit one that was moulded to fit the strategic imperatives of the organisation, why has strategy – and the ability to set and communicate it – seemingly taken a back seat to the cultural tidal wave that has engulfed leadership theory? Culture might eat poor strategy for breakfast, but good strategy eats culture for breakfast. And for lunch and dinner.