Culture is king (as long as it’s a positive one)

August 1, 2019

Critical takeaways

  • We firmly believe that the key differentiator in a crisis is speed which is a combination of well-understood core values and a clear chain of command.
  • However, a negative or toxic culture can still lead to a speedy response which will only make matters worse.
  • Focus on building a strong, positive culture first. Without this, nothing else matters. 


At Kith, we firmly believe that the key differentiator between companies that barely survive a crisis and those that thrive is the element of speed: how fast can they make decisions and get relevant information into the marketplace and to key stakeholders. But in order to have that speed, you need two key components: alignment around your mission and values and clarity around your chain of command. These elements give you the speed you need for crisis success.


The underlying importance of culture isn’t unique to a crisis situation and a recent study by MIT’s Sloan Management Review notes how strong corporate culture is critical to strike the right balance between strategic alignment and organizational agility. One of the key points the report makes is that organizations aligned around a strong culture do much better than those focused on rules and micromanagement.


However, it is important to note that agility and speed don’t distinguish between good and bad cultures. So you can have equally terrible results where a company with a strong toxic culture is also nimble and fast. Uber in the era of Travis Kalanick is an example of a company with a strong culture, defined chain of command and great agility. Unfortunately, it’s also an example of a company that was operating up to, and sometimes across, the line of what was legal while it was also regarded as a toxic place to work for many. 


Simon Sinek has noted that the biggest issue United had in the case of Dr Dao was a failure of leadership: individual staff members were more concerned about being punished than how passengers were being treated. United’s culture of rigidity, conformity, and fear not only led to the incident in the first place but resulted in a sluggish and clumsy response which made a bad situation much worse.


Sinek contrasts this with Southwest Airlines where passenger satisfaction is their number one goal and the corporate northstar which guides all their decision making. This makes Southwest highly agile which, when coupled with their focus on the customer, underpins their success and great reputation. 


When we are asked to prepare a crisis communications plan for a client, we always refer back to our equation for crisis success: mission and values plus chain of command equals speed. But we also have to remind our clients that the result is a magnified, speeded-up version of your day-to-day culture. As Peter Drucker famously said, “culture eats strategy for breakfast” so no matter what plan you come up in response to a crisis, it is the underlying culture of the organization that will ultimately determine the success of your response


Companies with a positive, confident culture, coupled with a strong chain of command, will achieve the necessary speed to succeed. However, companies with a toxic culture could also have a strong chain of command leading to speedy, but disastrous, results.


Of course, it can be difficult to be wholly objective about your own culture – and let’s be honest, most people at Uber, including the board and investors didn’t see an issue with the culture for many years – so I recommend you look at the MIT Sloan survey. It’s a useful benchmark of nine key values the authors identified as necessary for building a strong, positive culture in your organization. Once your culture is in place, speed becomes the key differentiator for success. 


Just make sure you are pointing in the right direction before you hit the throttle.


Filed under: Blog


Bill is a reputation management, crisis communications and professional development expert, keynote speaker, Wall Street Journal Risk & Compliance panelist, and best-selling author of Critical Moments: The New Mindset of Reputation Management. He has more than 25 years of global experience managing high-stakes crises, issues management, and media relations challenges for both Fortune 500 companies and winning global political campaigns.