Culture Always Wins in the Workplace


"Culture eats strategy for breakfast." That famous line, attributed to Peter Drucker, is ringing true now more than ever. It's a lesson I didn't understand early in my career, and it cost me dearly. It's the backbone of how I've tried to build my team in the second half of my career.

I don't have culture totally figured out, but I am clear on this: Culture wins.

Strategy is great. Having talented people is a must. But the real team wins come when culture is working.

When culture is bad, no matter how talented the team or great the strategy, a team will never reach its potential. Because whether good or bad, culture is the trump card that determines your team's outcome. During my early years, in a different life, I had an incredibly talented team with a good strategy and a bad culture—which was largely my fault. It didn't go well. Why? Because culture always wins.

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I'll never forget the first time I hired someone and felt good about it. We shook hands over a cup of coffee, and I walked away from that hire knowing I'd made the right decision for my company. More importantly, I'd made the right decision for my new employee. I knew he'd be happy working at my church-staffing company, Vanderbloemen Search Group.

Hiring people with the right skills has always been important to me, but it took me years to realize that, as a business owner, hiring people who would be happy working for my company was just as important—perhaps even more important. A good cultural fit between my company and the people who worked there didn't only improve their quality of life, but it also affected my business.

Earlier in my career, I didn't understand how important culture was to an organization's success. At 31 years old, I was the senior minister at the First Presbyterian Church in Houston. Sam Houston, the man who brought Texas into the United States in the 19th century, went to that church. Close to 5,000 adults and about 2,000 of their children called First Presbyterian home. There was a school, a preschool and hundreds of employees. It was a big church, and while I was there, the attendance grew a little, and the median donor age dropped. I'm proud of the contributions I made but wish I had known then what I know now about the importance of culture in any organization. A lot of the staff left while I was the senior minister. In hindsight, I know it was because we didn't have a great culture. Worse, I know now that I was the pacesetter for that culture.

I ended up leaving the First Presbyterian Church of Houston and went to work in the corporate world for a few years before starting my own company. Hiring one person at a time, I put a lot of thought into whom I was surrounding myself with and whom I'd be trusting with my clients. We grew organically, one hire at a time, and I slowly built a business staffed by employees who didn't just like the work but also liked working together. A culture was developing within my business, and it was the kind of culture that benefitted my employees, my clients and me.

I Got a Surprise

One by one, I added more people to Vanderbloemen Search Group until we had grown to a legitimate business with a Houston office, a few dozen employees and more than a hundred clients. In 2015, I was traveling for work and staying at a hotel in Baltimore when I received a phone call. It was someone from Entrepreneur magazine. I knew the people at my company had taken some kind of survey, and the call was about the results of the survey.

Turns out, we won best company culture in the whole country.

I was stunned. According to what the man told me, my little business didn't win the award for best culture at companies just in the city of Houston or the state of Texas or all faith-based organizations; we were selected from all the businesses in America. I was dumbfounded. I thought for sure an award like that would go to a high-tech firm in Silicon Valley, a place with Ping-Pong tables and all-you-can-eat buffets for the employees.

After that, we won more awards and landed on more lists, including Entrepreneur's Top 5 Company Culture, in 2015 and 2016, and Houston Business Journal's Best Places to Work, in 2015 and 2016.

At first, I found it hard to believe we were being recognized nationally for something I had unintentionally stumbled upon: building an irresistible workplace. Eventually, I accepted the accolades because they represented a lot of hard work and lessons learned. Those awards represented what's possible when you realize there are many priorities to consider in building a successful company, but above all else—more than profits, more than process and even more than people—culture wins.

Adapted from Culture Wins: The Roadmap to an Irresistible Workplace. Copyright © 2018 by William Vanderbloemen.

William Vanderbloemen is the CEO and founder of Vanderbloemen, which serves teams with a greater purpose by aligning their people solutions for growth: hiring, compensation, succession and culture. Through its retained executive search and consulting services, Vanderbloemen serves churches, schools, nonprofits, family offices and Christian businesses in all parts of the United States and internationally.

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