Culture trumps Strategy in Business Success

Strategy-in-Business-Success-Heidi-Alexandra-PollardEvery business has a culture – some are inspiring and healthy, others are crippling and toxic. The level of an organization efficiency and wellness is a direct reflection of its culture.

Traditional corporate cultures are no longer adequate to succeed in the new world of business. Cultures that originated in the era of the industrial revolution are now obsolete precisely because they discourage learning, change and innovation.

A huge demand exists for a new type of culture in our organizations today in order to become productive, profitable and sustainable well into the future.

Why culture is critical

Workplace wellness isn’t just a factor of the employees fitness or BMI ratings, it is particularly characterized by how motivated, inspired and engaged the workforce are to do great work. Key indicators of healthy workplaces are the presence of creativity and innovation and an energy of possibility – which all result in a positive, sustainable culture.

Unhealthy cultures tend to devalue creativity, stifle innovation and leave their workers feeling miserable and frustrated, stuck in the rut of the daily grind and stressed by the demands of productivity they no longer have the energy to face. Managers tend to create these cultures by discouraging new ideas, frowning on change and stymieing enthusiasm. The result, major disengagement that sucks the life out of the organization and its people.

The best culture is a UQ culture       

While understanding and managing culture is fundamental to success, for many organizations, the idea of going down the road of a ‘cultural change’ initiative is too daunting. It needn’t be. It is possible to convert low-engagement teams and cultures into engaged, high-performance UQ Cultures with some intent and a slight shift focus.

In UQ (Uniqueness Quotient) Cultures there is a subtle shift to WHO people are rather than WHAT they do. That is, WHO they are is more important than WHAT they do. A strong UQ culture shapes how employees perform and gives them a strong sense of purpose.

What is a UQ culture?  It’s one that is powered by an inner force, it’s who they are and why they do what they do, it’s one that has a unique, competitive edge. In today’s crowded marketplace organizations need to be able to stand out as Unique and different from their competition with a unique brand. A strong UQ culture is the key to setting a business apart from its competition and ultimately attracting and retaining high quality employees to grow with the organization.

With companies large and small competing for the same global talent pool, a UQ Culture will set them apart and deliver tangible, measurable benefits to any business.

Micro-managers Kill Culture

Micro-managers or Container Managers are those managers who find it hard to let go of the reins, to trust the team and get out of the way. In some ways, this is counter-intuitive and atypical of traditional role models and therefore understandable, however in high performing UQ Cultures there is always more macro managing than there is micro-management.

Container Managers are typically good at doing what has to be done. They are good at dealing with facts and not letting their emotions or other people’s emotions get in the way of making a decision. They are great at developing procedures, implementing plans, and no-one can do the job as good as they can. However, their tendency to hold onto decision-making and undertake jobs that could be delegated is not conducive to the creation of a UQ culture full of motivated, inspired, and engaged staff.

Container managers are typically responsible for the bottleneck in organizations, where innovation is stymied and ideas are shelved. They may be producing revenue and results however they rarely create a leadership pipeline, are reliant on the command and control approach and can ill-afford time off as their teams become co-dependent. This approach may have worked in 1965 but it will not allow a company to survive in 2020.

The New Leadership Alternative

One way for organizations to begin to shape and construct a more positive and productive UQ culture is to start with its managers and leaders – importantly with those in linchpin positions – in middle management.

In their book Multipliers: How the Best Leaders Make Everyone Smarter, Liz Wiseman and Greg McKeown discuss how great leaders extract at least two times more capability from their people than poor leaders.

A UQ culture is one that does just that by turning managers into Expander Leaders who live by the motto that you have to give power to empower.

Expander Leaders value inclusiveness and participation, they hand over the decision-making process, and let their employees govern themselves. Expander Leaders deal with the facts, but also consider how it impacts people. They listen to their employees, realize their strengths, tap into their potential, and include them in the growth of business.

Expander leaders create healthy relationships, a caring environment and an openness to trying new things which brings out best in their team. By appreciating others, engaging in purposeful conversations and helping their people to find work they love to do, they create driven, loyal employees who are engaged and energized, and want to make a valuable contribution to the organization and go the extra mile.

Essentially, it takes an attitude of figuring out how best to serve the teams, rather than asking the teams to best serve you. ~Heidi Alexandra Pollard Tweet this!

Expander leaders create UQ Cultures by:

  • Telling their people WHAT needs to be done and WHY but letting them figure out HOW
  • Not shooting them down for any crazy ideas, instead COACHING them to find ways to improve or refine their ideas
  • Treating their people as human BEINGS not DOINGS and getting to know their Uniqueness and what makes them tick
  • Not only TELLING them what to do all the time, instead ASKING them how they envision the future and how they would create a more successful, sustainable company.
  • Encouraging rebellion, creativity and risk-taking
  • Recognizing and rewarding achievement, progress and innovative behaviors

Do you consider yourself an Expander Leader? In what way have you contributed to your team? Share your thoughts below.


  1. Just as a business leader must continue to invest in R&D and marketing to preserve market share, they should also get granular with respect to their company’s culture. When the one constant is change, culture is what can give a company its distinctive edge.

  2. This so chimes with a recent Guardian article here in the UK and working in the Social Enterprise culture. . If people truly engage with the business culture and believe in what they are trying to achieve they will want to publicise their work themselves and you can’t buy that kind of marketing or loyalty. It is only when get employees fully behind something that they can push it!

  3. Thank you very much for the article. Culture are the beliefs, ideas and customs that are shared and accepted in society. In a “business” society, culture denotes how people relate to each other and work together to achieve specified goals. Business culture is often profound and dynamic, as society evolves. But the values on which the culture is founded do not evolve. Like you rightly stated, a positive business culture is characterized by two-way communication in order to enhance consensus-building. In such an environment, conversation, dialogue, advice and even criticism abound. If a business has a strategy, it would be focussed enough to direct its energy towards goal achievement.

  4. Hi Heidi
    I love the whole discussion about expander managers and how “They listen to their employees, realize their strengths, tap into their potential, and include them in the growth of business.”
    I also love your UQ concept – just brilliant!

    • Thanks for reading my article Trudy and for your generous and positive feedback – great to hear that it is resonating with you. listening in to our people and then allowing them to use their uniqueness or natural born talent is the best way to the top!

  5. Unfortunately,most companies have the container managers. I worked at a place where our staff meetings wrere called “All Hands” meetings. and this was administrative staff and not factory workers.
    Regarding delegating,it is hard to resist telling people how to do things, but I have found that you get a lot of synergy when you let the team decide how to accokmplish the task.

    • Exactly Bill which is why you are a wise man – it takes a while to realise that we get more synergy from letting the team decide the how, especially when we’ve waited a long time to be the “boss”.

  6. Love your list of expander leader qualities. Also makes a good list of great traits in a small business owner. 🙂

  7. This is my favorite thing you said: Telling their people WHAT needs to be done and WHY but letting them figure out HOW. The “why” part is something I recently learned is crucial to the process. If they know the why, it can often allow positive inputs and influences that would have otherwise been missed. Thanks for continuing to educate! 🙂 Carmen

    • Thanks for stopping by and reading the article Carmen. Yes indeed there is great power in the simplicity of letting people figure out the how for themselves but remembering to give them a reason why. “Just do it” or “Because I said so” are certainly not empowering or motivating enough to have a team member do a job well.

  8. This is brilliant! Especially loved the reference to what corporate wellness must include! I will be sharing this with some of my clients as they grow. Better to establish a healthy culture from the beginning, I think…

    • So glad this struck a chord for you Terry and that corporate wellness is far more holistic than at surface level. Please do share with your clients and encourage them to review their culture and ensure they establish one that recognises the uniqueness in each team member from the start.

  9. Mentoring leaders as you communicate, listen and walk the walk you talk is the way to go.
    Too often with texting, email and other electronic access the ability and opportunity to interact face to face has become an almost lost art.

    • Spot on Mitch – the art of communication in its human form is the most powerful and is sadly often forgotten in the modern technical focused world. Knee to knee, hip to hip we learn much more about each other and see modelled the way to think, do, be.

  10. Great article Heidi, I especially like, “Encouraging rebellion, creativity and risk-taking”.

    That creates more of a mastermind feel, to bring in new ideas that the business owner and/or managers perhaps cannot “see” because they are more focused on running the business.

    Rewarding those who speak up will encourage even more participation as well. All in all when your employees are happy to be part of your team then it’s a win-win for all.

    • Spot on JoLynn that we are often blinded by the bleeding obvious when we are absorbed in the day to day running of a business., through participation, engagement and empowerment we create a culture that has more possibility of innovating, of improving and of engaging with people – the bedrock of business.

  11. Hi Heidi

    Having worked in some very toxic cultures in local government, reading your post was like manna from heaven! A focus on WHO instead of WHAT; developing a human-facing organisation; thinking of staff as people rather than resources; and focusing on uniqueness rather than than on homogeneity! Oh, how I loved those words!

    I’ve tried to pursue a version of the UQ leadership approach throughout my career in local government and was branded a maverick, a rebel, a misfit and anachronistic! I know … I had to look it up too! Reading this reaffirms my steadfast belief that what I was doing was right … and what I have been doing since I became a consultant as definitely right! Thank you for an excellent post Heidi 🙂

    Kind regards


    • John it sounds as though we have had parallel careers – I too worked in some seriously toxic government agency cultures so I guess that’s why you could relate to my thoughts!
      Indeed I was also seen as somewhat a radical, a challenger and even once called colour and movement – sent in to distract the troops.
      It is interesting to see that when companies such as Zappos, Virgin etc apply these principles of UQ Leadership and allow for innovation, flexibility and empowerment that they become successful and sustainable.
      Keep doing what you are doing the world needs your out of the box thinking!

  12. “Workplace wellness isn’t just a factor of the employees fitness or BMI ratings, it is particularly characterized by how motivated, inspired and engaged the workforce are to do great work.” LOVE THIS! Well stated.

    When I worked in Corporate HR, developing managers were a major part of my role. The explanations of containers and expanders are so important for companies to remember. They absolutely impact the culture of an organization.

    • Thanks for validating my thoughts Doreen – glad it resonated.
      For some the use of expander leaders and containers may be too simple however I find that having two ends of a scale helps people see when they are moving towards or away from their ideal style or not so ideal. And yes leaders at all levels set the tone and heavily influence the culture of a company.

  13. A nice summary of culture and it’s importance.
    In my line of business, we often discuss security culture, and how difficult it is to create one. I will take your tips and apply them!

  14. I LOVE your differentiation between container managers and expander managers, and I completely agree that “micro managers kill culture.” When employees don’t feel empowered to do what they do best, and they don’t feel trusted our valued — but instead second guessed and judges constantly, it makes it difficult for them to be excited about what they do, who they do it for, and the impact it may have.

    • Thanks for the feedback Jennifer – you are spot on that as individuals we want to feel valued for our unique contribution and allowed to do it to the best of our ability without someone checking on us every two minutes. Empowerment is critical.

  15. Heidi, What a small world indeed! I just saw Liz Wiseman speak at our local university last Friday. She is excellent and the concept of “multipliers” and “diminishers” is something we all can relate to in the workplace.

    • How great that you got to hear Liz speak Mary Ellen – I love her work and there are many synergies between her research and my own as well as that of Roberts Greeenleaf, Worldblu and values based leadership. It’s great to see a movement back to these principles is happening globally.

  16. Wonderful post. 🙂 The effect of a positive culture is huge. So if leaders want results they should inspire more, and look less at excel. 🙂

    • Thanks for your feedback Frode – you are spot on that the effect of a positive culture is huge and that it is often underestimated.
      Unfortunately many of the readers here sound as though the already get this point. Our mission now should we all choose it is to get out there and talk to others that aren’t aware of cultures positive effect and see if we can share this knowledge with them.

  17. Really great post Heidi !

    I particularly appreciated the creative flow.

    Your fresh and genuine perspective really resonated with me.

    I too believe in creating extraordinary moments.

    Just like your post ~ a work of art !

    Bravo !


    • Thanks for the feedback Johann I love that you found it creative.
      I feel charged by your response to continue on my journey to banish bully managers and transform them into expander leaders who empower their people and create teams that are innovative, agile and engaged.
      How do you create extraordinary moments?

  18. Culture killers… I thought others were micro-managers until I discovered I was one! After deep though, it occurred to me that I was the bottleneck to creating a culture of teamwork, innovation and success. Needless to say, it is very difficult to cede ‘control’ to others, especially for the perfectionist minds like myself.

    “A UQ culture is one that does just that by turning managers into Expander Leaders who live by the motto that you have to give power to empower.” Heidi, you have given me even the more reason to keep at it. I will continue to give more power to my managers and hopefully, empower them towards greater heights!

    • Wonderful to read your personal story and insights here Kimunya. My own mentor once said to me that she aims for perfection only 3 per cent of the time – I found that very liberating.
      Your intentions to keep at it are honourable and I am sure with time, will be rewarded

  19. You’ve really got me thinking about that shift from what people do to who they are. Strong organizations allow people’s individuality to shone through. But actually much of what organizations do stresses standardization. One allows flexibility, the other efficiency. How focused on who we are can organizations be when the need to improve efficiency is strong? Got me thinking so thanks Heidi!

    • Great to hear the grey cells are ticking over this Andy. Humans and organisations are complex aren’t there. In my experience there is never a silver bullet however with focus and intent I believe two can go hand in hand!

  20. The idea of UQ is certainly attractive with its focus on people. What’s needed here is an acknowledgement of the relationship between strategy and culture, not simply a statement such as the title. Culture may be the elephant in the room, but simply offering a new type of culture does not help.
    The simplest definition of strategy is “the vision of our company’s future – what we do, who we serve and how we measure our success.” Here’s an example: “provide scientifically proven technology to solve the medical needs of consumers and hospitals.” Once a strategy or vision is articulated, leadership at all levels needs to create tactics that will lead to reaching the vision. It is within the discussion of tactics that the idea of culture would be addressed and clarified. A tactic related to this sample strategy is that managers will “educate, talk about, repeat, recognize, reward, continue talking about UQ.” In this way the culture of UQ supports strategy rather than being its competitor.

    • Thanks so much for your thoughtful comments Susan I totally concur with what you are saying – a business without strategy as well would surely fail. However I believe that no matter how smart a strategy, vision or plan is, without the right people, doing the right things the right way that strategy will never come to fruition.
      I believe the best way to create a strong UQ culture and what will set a company apart to deliver tangible, measurable benefits to the business is by attracting top talent, increasing workforce engagement and creating a culture that clearly gets and is connected to the bigger strategic vision – that’s when you see companies achieve superior business performance.
      The two indeed go hand in hand and I love your tactic of managers being charged to “educate, talk about, repeat, recognize, reward, continue talking about UQ.”

  21. Awesome Heidi!! I especially love “Telling their people WHAT needs to be done and WHY but letting them figure out HOW”

    Everyone has something amazing and unique about them. When we let them free and out of the ‘rules,’ we empower them to bring forth their gifts and contribute to the solution in a far more powerful way.

    • Spot on Cindy – so glad you get the concept so completely.
      Indeed when we allow people to live their UQ and be authentic and leverage their strengths they can move mountains!

  22. Love the UQ idea Heidi, and how you are advocation human beings rather than doings – after all how do we change culture – one human being at a time.

    Nice article and useful concepts – thanks!

    Warm wishes


    • Spot on David – we are human beings and it is through our human behaviours that we change a culture, a family, a community or a country. Thanks for the feedback!

  23. I was just talking with two of my business partners about a talk I am going to be doing on this subject. You are timely and right on the mark! Love it!

  24. I have thought for years that the “industrial revolution” style of using workers as widgets was beyond needing to be shot. Love the focus on “who” instead of “what.” We have a lot of managers to change, though – both “container” and upper echelon.

    • Yes indeed Sue it is time for a change and the upward hill climb is large though I know we can all make a great difference one manager at a time – even if that manager is ourselves!

  25. I love this post,Heidi! I agree – micro managers kill cultures.

    When I used to do HR consutling in corporate, it was the micro managers that were the most high-maintenance (behaviorally) and ironically the last to truly deal with performance issues and get rid of toxic employees (I guess they kept them around for punching bags:) If only they had access to your UQ concept (which is absolutely brilliant)! Thanks for sharing your wisdom!

    • OOohhh you’ve touched on a great point there Jennifer- it is true that often container managers hang onto toxic employees for too long – not so much for punching bags in my experience but often because they are empire building and it is all about the number of people they have reporting to them that they can’t let go of. So glad you like the UQ Power concept and thanks for sharing your experience!

  26. Hi Heidi,

    Great post and totally agree. Question for you. If a manager has a fairly entry level staff, how will he or she know when to change from being a more traditional manager to an expander leader?


    • Hi Adam – great question being an expander leader does not necessarily mean one moves away from using essential management skills when required. For example when training new staff, in an emergency or when providing instructions for a business critical task an expander leader may still provide a lot of structure and input into how staff undertake that task. What’s different from a container manager is the intent and how they come to the table – an expander manager may set out what needs to be done, why and by when and then ask staff for their input into how. If the staff are new and are stumped for ideas the leader may brainstorm with them to come up with ideas however all the time their intention is to foster growth in the person, to get them learning to think for themselves and to be equipped with the knowledge that they are valued and respected. Does that help?

  27. Love the UQ concept, what a great way to put it. People want to be valued for who they are and not what they do, but because what you do it easier to see its usually all people focus on.

    The culture of a company can be allusive at times, hard to grasp and event harder to define. It is the current that flows beneath the surface.

    Thanks for the post.

    • Thanks for your comments Paul – glad the UQ concept resonates with you.
      You are right on that people would prefer to be valued for who they are – if they are allowed to live their UQ Power that is and it is possible to get a sense of who they are. The struggle is that often under Container Managers, people’s uniqueness is squashed and not allowed to flourish and they then get known simply for what they do.
      Culture is indeed allusive and hard to see like the wind. However although it is invisible to the eye most of the time (except in the behaviours of its people) it is still certainly felt and experienced by all. People know when they do or don’t feel comfortable in a culture – and I guess that’s the challenge, they often can’t talk about their ‘feelings’ at work.

  28. Hi Heidi. What a great way to communicate the tenets of effective leadership … “expander leaders” as opposed to “container managers.” Thank you for sharing your thoughts on how to create the “Uniqueness quotient” that is so necessary today. Great post!

    • Thanks for stopping by and learning a bit more about Expander Leaders who empower by giving power, servant leadership style, and Container Managers, who cramp their people’s style and feel that control is better than release.
      The more we are aware, the more we can prepare for change.

  29. Great post Heidi. I love it. Especially when you say that you have to give power to empower and to put the focus on WHO people are. This is indeed key to create a culture based on the intrinsic motivation of the people. And as you tell us, for that you need ‘expander leaders’.

    Thank you for sharing your very valuable insights on this important topic.

    Warm regards,


    • So glad that you got all the key takeaways from my article Joan. Indeed a culture that is based on the intrinsic motivation of its people is going to be a strong culture with UQ Power. Afterall who doesn’t gain motivation from being in the flow and having the opportunity to use ones strengths to their fullest.

  30. I absolutely love the UQ idea! As a personal branding expert I work with corporations to understand how a personal brand supports the corporate brand. The way I put it is that corporations needs to be innovative to succeed. Innovation comes from creativity and creativity comes from the unique diversity of each individual within that corporate culture. The power of personal branding is the diversity of the individual and that WHO you have mentioned above, or what I call your ‘unique promise of value.’ Really loved this post. Thanks Heidi!

    • So great to read that you “get it” Peter – nice to be amongst like minded people. You are spot on that personal brands support the corporate brand – how many organisations have you seen shift in their culture for the positive or negative because of changes in one or two key management positions?
      I believe that your uniqueness is the most powerful tool you have in today’s crowded marketplace and it is my passion to help people and company’s communicate that uniqueness effectively.


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