Culture Eats Strategy for Breakfast


I just read a great article in Philadelphia Magazine today about Chip Kelly, the enigmatic coach of the Philadelphia Eagles.

The article noted that last year a sideline microphone at an Eagles game caught Kelly saying to his players:

Culture wins football. Culture will beat scheme every day.”

That’s the second time I’ve seen that phrase used in the past couple of months.

In Bill McDermott’s (CEO of software giant SAP) book, “Winners Dream: A Journey from Corner Store to Corner Office“, he uses the more popular version of the phrase when he states “Cultures eats strategies for breakfast.”

Before I get too far, I want to give proper credit for the origin of this phrase. It is attributed to management guru Peter Drucker, who is alleged to have said “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.”

So what is culture, and why is it so important?

Fast Company, one of my favorite magazines, had an article a few years ago, “Culture Eats Strategy for Lunch” that discussed the importance of culture.

The author, Shawn Parr, offered a great description of culture:

Culture is a balanced blend of human psychology, attitudes, actions, and beliefs that combined create either pleasure or pain, serious momentum or miserable stagnation. A strong culture flourishes with a clear set of values and norms that actively guide the way a company operates. Employees are actively and passionately engaged in the business, operating from a sense of confidence and empowerment rather than navigating their days through miserably extensive procedures and mind-numbing bureaucracy. Performance-oriented cultures possess statistically better financial growth, with high employee involvement, strong internal communication, and an acceptance of a healthy level of risk-taking in order to achieve new levels of innovation. 

Parr then goes on to say that “It’s (culture) one of the most important drivers that has to be set or adjusted to push long-term, sustainable success. It’s not good enough just to have an amazing product and a healthy bank balance. Long-term success is dependent on a culture that is nurtured and alive… Think about it like a nurturing habitat for success. Culture cannot be manufactured. It has to be genuinely nurtured by everyone from the CEO down.”

According to Parr, the advantages of a strong culture include better focus, greater motivation, more connection, more cohesion, and greater spirit.

Parr offers the following as the building blocks to a strong culture:

  • Dynamic and engaged leadership
  • Living values
  • Responsibility and accountability
  • Celebrate success and failure

Harvard Business Review had an article from 2005 that also talked about culture, “Culture Matters Most“.

Authors Thomas Kell and Gregory Carrott wrote that “Corporate cultures—and not just the strong ones—influence employees’ leadership styles more than any other aspect of their jobs, according to our recent analysis of thousands of executive assessments for more than 100 corporations.”

For example, the competencies of an American engineer employed by Honda will probably more closely resemble those of a Japanese comptroller at Honda than those of an American engineer at Ford.

The authors note that it is possible to change a company’s culture—or at least to prod it a bit in one direction or another. That is best achieved by continually hiring people who represent the direction in which you are headed.

And when you read about Chip Kelly, that seems to be what he is doing. He has let go of some highly talented players, and the reasoning seems to be that those players did not fit into the culture he was trying to create.

Kelly is one of the most innovative coaches to come along in quite some time. He reads books like Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, by a Stanford professor, and Leaders Eat Last: Why Some Teams Pull Together and Others Don’t. It’s all about building culture, creating the atmosphere to win.

He reminds me of my other favorite coach in the NFL, Pete Carroll of the Seattle Seahawks. Carroll also stresses the importance of culture, and in fact has developed a philosophy known as  Win Forever. Created in conjunction with psychologist Dr. Michael Gervais, Win Forever is an applied mindset training program for high performing organizations that is science-based and success proven. Its aim is to help organizations develop a culture of high performance in a relentless pursuit of a competitive edge – for individuals and teams to become the very best they can possibly become. The pyramid below provides an overview of the Win Forever program.


In a story on SBNation, Carroll is praised for his leadership style — by standing with his players through the crucible of criticism, shouldering much of it himself, even, and instead of trying to change or manipulate his players, he encouraged them to be themselves.

Said Carroll: “I told them (the players), we don’t let them be themselves. We celebrate them being themselves, and we cheerlead them being themselves.”

“We’re trying to find guys that have unique ways about them and qualities, and try to allow them to demonstrate that in the way we perform. We’ll go to no end to figure that out.”

This is where Carroll’s and Kelly’s philosophies seem to differ. Kelly seems to be building a team that fits into a certain type of culture, while Carroll seems to take all types of players, and then preaches and teaches his Win Forever philosophy.

It obviously worked for Carroll; I hope Kelly meets with the same success.


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