Culture, your most potent strategy

Nigeria’s minister of Information Lai Mohammed AFP PHOTO / PIUS UTOMI EKPEI

When asked what the most important decision that he and his co-founders of Singapore took to create the success that his country had become, Lee Kuan Yew (First Prime Minister of Singapore) responded, and I paraphrase: we decided that every member of our leadership will take a vow not to be involved in adultery, and adhere strictly to it. Once found wanting, they would have to resign. One would have thought that he would say something like – we will come up with big projects, make portable water available, build roads and schools or some of that pedestrian or banal strategy that we are accustomed to hearing in the third world.

This example from Singapore proves what scholars teach in the best business schools around the world – that your best strategy is not necessarily the creative and unique ideas, products or projects that you undertake, but it is the culture: the way of life that the people in the organization or society have that actually makes the difference between sustainable success and failure.

For example, if Nigeria does not eliminate the culture of indiscipline, ethnic and religious bigotry, and corruption, we will always be doomed to mediocrity and failure, no matter how high the price of crude oil is, how balanced our trading position with the rest of the world, how much foreign reserves we have or how strong our naira trades against foreign currencies. We will only go through a cycle of economic resurgence, only to fall into the dark, dangerous abyss of failure over and over again, if we do not address the issues of culture. I reckon the biblical injunction to “seek ye first the Kingdom of Heaven and its righteousness and other things will follow” was the path taken by Yew and his colleagues that all of us in Nigeria need to pay attention to.

Bringing this to a more micro-level, down to organisations seeking to remain competitive and to succeed, it is critical to not only focus on the ideas, initiatives and projects that you believe will help you achieve success, but even more importantly to focus on creating the culture that will 1) ensure that more creative ideas come through each year and are well executed, that 2) people take ownership for the challenges that come each day while executing these strategies, that 3) the organisation and its people learn, make improvements and changes as they go along with their strategies; that 4) there is a focus on the external: customers and shareholders so that the organization is able to attain and sustain its goals and that 5) there is a culture of principles-based leadership that ensures performance and commitment today and a legacy of succession, tomorrow.

You will agree that where organizations do not have a culture of innovation and disciplined execution, personal accountability, learning, customers/stakeholders and leadership that such organizations may create “flash-in-the pan” or “overnight success”, but not REAL success that is sustainable and transcends the here and now. For example, no matter how creative your new ideas or projects are, they can always be copied by your competitors, so your best strategy is not to hope that you have the best ideas, but that you have a culture that creates a pool of ideas and ensures that those ideas are well implemented. In a similar vein, if your strategy is just to employ the best and brightest talent, without creating a culture of personal accountability, leadership and succession, then your competition will simply poach your talent and leave you continuously hiring and losing good talent.

As your organisation mounts its strategy for the years ahead, please be careful to pay attention to the culture that will ensure the sustainable success of this strategy. On a macro political level, Nigerians should also stop being too concerned with whether we are out of the recession or not, we should be more concerned about the culture that we have now, and the one that will be dominant when the recession is over. Without the right culture, we will go down the same path that brought us here in the first place, and we may in spite of our best efforts at saving our economy miss it completely.

Interestingly, visionary leaders like Nkrumah of Ghana understood this imperative, hence the significant investment in character education and mathematical skills under what many call the “indoctrination” program of his Convention People’s Party. At the height of his Youth Indoctrination Programme, children were correcting and “whistle-blowing” on their corrupt and undisciplined parents.

The one thing that is inimitable is your culture – everything else, your ideas, plans, tactics and even your people can be copied and poached. If you are looking to create sustainable success in your organization or in our society then we must be deliberate about the culture that we want, and invest not only in the projects of economic transformation, but in the more important projects of social and cultural transformation.
Omagbitse Barrow is an educator and teacher of Values-based leadership and strategy. @gbitsebarrow

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Lai Mohammed
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