Culture eats Talent for breakfast too!

Peter Drucker is credited with coining the phrase “culture eats strategy for breakfast”, referring to the importance of organizational culture to the success of a company. And since culture is derived from the leadership and employees, the assumption is that getting the best talent in can ensure you create the best working culture for your business.

Now, what is that phrase regarding assumptions?

Sure, human capital is the key component for performance as we’re still very much dependent on our human ingenuity, emotional intelligence and managerial skills to drive the business forward. A necessary but not sufficient requirement. Unless you have a supportive business infrastructure for your talent, ie culture, even top performers can become sour.

The main element that has yet to be resolved is what makes a great employee great and how can we assess it in an interview. Is academic superiority and strong brands enough to predict performance on the job? Should we prioritize experience over potential? Does long tenure depict loyalty or stagnation? And how do we balance between these?

There’s a lot of context and specificity that needs to be taken into account for these questions but let’s attempt to answer some of them.


I worked with individuals that would fit the term ‘top talent’. From Harvard educated to the experienced industry veterans and the ones in between. I have seen strong and poor performers coming from both backgrounds. So how can you tell?

Let’s start with a definition of what makes a strong performer. It is never really just one thing. It is the right mixture of attributes, personality traits and mindsets, properly applied at the right moment and situation, that make up the best talent.

Academics and brands are mostly used as statistical indicators since they provide the hiring manager with the confidence that the candidate will most likely succeed. Coming from a top tier university, the candidates already passed a  certain degree of screening. Drilling further on academics, into the GPA dimension, Google and other companies have already proven that these averages do not predict success on the job. In some cases, quite the opposite. So more dimensions are required.

Experience is important as it enables the candidate to ‘hit the ground running’ and add value early on. But there is one potential drawback to it. Can the candidate evolve and learn new capabilities so they can improve on the job as well as to the changing market dynamics, or do they have a fixed working mentality and are very experienced only in a certain task and situation?

Consistent successful experience should be demonstrated in several roles, projects and situations in order to count, all in which required the candidate to have direct contribution to the direction and performance of the initiative. A free-rider doesn’t qualify. From the hiring perspective, managers should take a more long term view on the candidate, putting more emphasis on potential than short term gains.

The tenure question opens a Pandora box of opinions. Mostly due to the varied backgrounds of the people holding those opinions. I believe in the merit of experiencing different organizations, cultures and dynamics only if real value is being delivered by the individual and they demonstrate improved performance in terms of lessons learned, skill-sets sharpened and knowledge developed. If the moves are for moves sake only, they should probably move on..

Long tenure is often associated with loyalty to the organization. I couldn’t disagree more. You can be as loyal to the organization in your first year as in your 10th anniversary. If anything, sometimes you come across many long tenured individuals that become the old guards of the organization in the bad sense of it – preventing any positive change from occurring, focusing on their own selfish goals, and thus preventing the company from moving forward. That’s a high price to pay for ‘loyalty’.

The Mix that makes it

With the information economy in full swing and digital providing a wealth of new paths to business success, an individual’s ability to focus, learn and make data-driven decisions “on the fly” becomes a  sought after skill.

As a result, having a flexible and adaptive mindset, being curious and having the interest and capability to learn and adopt new ways of working is paramount. One should also be able to perform as a leader and as a team player at the same time. Action and result oriented approach can help ensure that prioritization is present and impact precedes politics. In addition, communication capability and people skills are of essence in order to be able to build the trust and credibility with the multiple stakeholders in and outside the organization.

Most of all, the candidate needs to have the personal and professional ethics to ensure that they will always revert to doing what’s right for the company, the customers and society as a whole.

There may me more recipes of skills that would work, but if the ethics, competence and intelligence (IQ & EQ) are there and maintained over the years, you probably got yourself a winner.


Most would agree that all these skills, behaviours, and attributes are important, but how can you assess them in a candidate?

The short answer is that it’s very difficult and many people get it wrong. Truly the only way would be to see them on the job but by that time it would be too late.

However, there are a few things that can help us get closer, and I used some points made by Claudio Fernandez-Araoz, an expert on talent and leadership, on how and what to assess.

Put greater emphasis on potential than on experience, by looking into the curiosity of the candidate. Look for strong engagements and passion, both heart and mind, and the accompanying mental strength that ensures they don’t crack under pressure and stand for what’s right. Unselfish motivation is key for real loyalty to the company and customers, and having an entrepreneurial perseverance would ensure the right decisions would be followed through and actually get done.

Getting it wrong

I have seen first hand the effect of hiring the wrong leaders on the culture and overall performance of the company. The higher level they enter, the more destructive their impact is.

Bad leaders tend to reduce transparency by either creating smoke screens or manipulating data to align with their agenda.

If facts, truth and honesty are compromised, very quickly one can expect an erosion of result driven or meritocratic culture. Instead of growing the business and its talent, we shift towards politics, headcount games and lip service. What’s worse is that the team members start to imitate the behaviour of their managers and the corruption trickles down.

Ethical talent either leaves or morphs, bureaucrats remain, and in a place where ethics are no longer valued you find politics, hypocrisy and ultimate corruption fill the void.

The real danger is that it becomes very difficult to acknowledge these wrongs even after they happen, primarily because the sophistication of the rouge managers, the baffling noise, and the bureaucratic difficulty of getting the wrong leaders out.

Final thoughts

An HBR article on ‘How Company Culture Shapes Employee Motivation’ looked at the different motivations to work of employees as the prime indicator of job performance. The six main reasons listed were: play, purpose, potential, emotional pressure, economic pressure, and inertia. It is fairly intuitive that researchers have found that the first three motives tend to increase performance, while the latter three hurt it.

So in order to maximize the good motives, while minimizing the bad ones, it is not enough to get the right talent in but to focus on building an ethical and supportive culture where great talent can materialize its potential.

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