The heart of successful business is smart decisions and then brilliant marketing and execution, right?

It sounds good, but it's subject to a fatal flaw, according to an interview that HBO CEO and Chairman Richard Plepler gave to the Financial Times. (The link's behind a paywall, but you can register for free access to three articles a month. And if business is your interest, getting a subscription to the FT would be a wise move, as its coverage is as smart as it comes.)

"Culture eats strategy for breakfast," Plepler says. That's not to say strategy is unimportant. Of course you have to look at where a company and competitors are going, what customers want, and the nature of the current business environment.

The mistake many executives make, however, is to assume that they are the source of revealed wisdom to employees. The people at the top decide what is right and the people at the bottom follow their gallant leader.

Such a move wastes the enormous pool of ideas, creativity, experience, and intelligence of all those employees. Here's how Plepler expanded the idea to the FT:

"The work environment that we create has to be transparent and you have to be able to brook dissent," he continues. "Everyone can say what's on their mind and once we make a choice, everyone is behind it. Someone once said to me, 'You made the room safe to talk.' And I said, 'If you want to win, what other way is there to be?'"

There is no other way. Make employees feel threatened when they disagree and they won't. They also won't tell you when there are problems, point out what should be obvious flaws, give you feedback from customers, or say anything else that might get them into trouble. And when they stay out of trouble, you get into it.

Part of leadership also involves bringing people along for a journey. If they don't at least have their say and raise their concerns, you're not leading them, you're engaging in a kidnapping operation. Until the employees have a sense of ownership, they won't exhibit abiding cooperation and support.

In other words, if your organization's culture is broken, it doesn't matter what exalted strategy you bring to the masses because it won't work. And if your culture is strong, smart, and receptive, it won't matter if your strategy is off because you'll hear of the problems and get help to fix them--and the support you need to reach the company's goals.

Published on: Jan 16, 2015