'Culture eats your strategy for breakfast' panel reveals the best time to foster culture


Ogilvy and Mather's Angela Madlala said that consistency and authenticity are key to embedding resilient culture.

According to Marge Mantjie, head of HR at Alexander Forbes, culture is what’s expressed in the fibre of an organisation, “from the vibes you feel when you walk in the door, to how people talk to each other as well as the level of morale and values adhered to. Because it is so pervasive, it’s easy to get wrong.”

She was speaking on a panel titled “Culture eats your strategy for breakfast” at the HR Indaba in Sandton. 

Culture is at the underbelly of any strategy, so if your culture is out of alignment with your goals, you’re less likely achieve to achieve them, or if you do, it will be at huge expense to your bottom line, people and possibly your brand.

Perhaps the biggest asset any HR practitioner has in turning around the culture of an organisation is executive buy-in. For Laurette Makhubele, HR director at SECA JTI:  

“The fish rots from the head. Your role is to make leadership aware of how they show up, how the way they lead affects others, and that how they behave sets the tones through all levels of the organisation. As an HR professional, this requires some dexterity in making the business case for investing in culture.”

The painful flipside of this, is that HR plays a crucial role in keeping management accountable when they don’t model the ideal culture.  In those instances, you have to find the courage to hold the mirror up to leadership when they abandon the values you strive to uphold. 

According to Angela Madlala, director of talent Management at Ogivly and Mather SA, consistency and authenticity are central to embedding a culture that is resilient enough to survive the many challenges which arise when a company is trying to break into new markets, acquire new customers or survive in rapidly changing times.  

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The panellists also pointed out that culture is displayed by the people who stay and who leave, “Many times high performers can’t tolerate a mediocre environment while weak players collapse under the pressure of high expectations.” Says Laurette. 

Toxic culture is a major business risk that has to be managed, as it can derail even the most genius strategy. However, toxicity often manifests in insidious ways; presenting as idle gossip, cliques, subtle sabotage, which all accumulate into a lack of team cohesion.

Office politics require that HR professionals learn to manoeuvre the different ingredients of culture, so that the strategy can stay on course. For Laurette, this often means looking for a sponsor who can back you up as you try to address certain issues, but warns:  

“Be solution oriented in your approach, speak their language, tie what you want to what matters to them, be armed with facts and prepared to engage different stakeholders in agile.”

Marge points out that the best time to foster a healthy culture is when you’re not in crisis mode. “It in the everyday interactions, the quick chats and exchanges that happen among team members. It is in how we celebrate star achievers and encourage those still figuring it out.” 


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