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Updated: May 11, 2020 Outside the Box

Don’t abandon your culture in a crisis

A picture of Bonnie J. Walker Image | Courtesy of Bonnie J. Walker Bonnie J. Walker
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Every business has its own culture. The culture of a business is consciously and unconsciously integrated into all operations, and is expressed through the organization’s values and mindset and messaging, central to all decisions, financial and otherwise. The culture of a business should be clear, consistent, and communicated.

Management guru Peter Drucker once said culture eats strategy for breakfast. Drucker wasn’t suggesting strategy is unimportant. He was noting no strategy, however strong, would succeed if executed in an environment of a weakened or failed culture.

When a crisis hits, like the COVID-19 pandemic, businesses face both immediate challenges and opportunity. Sometimes the challenge is tied to lost profit and sometimes it is as critical as life or death, when people become sick. Whatever is on the line, the difference of coming through strong versus failing comes down to culture.

For example, in response to COVID-19, which prompted a shift to distance-learning, Worcester Academy focused on its motto, “Achieve the honorable,” and on the core values of continuous learning and development. In planning for this virtual space, the leadership strategically leaned into the academy’s long-standing culture, putting first the students, faculty and staff. This translates to humanity being the priority: sustaining jobs, training faculty to use state-of-the art technology tools, securing virtual resources, providing learning and development training, keeping students engaged through a comprehensive learning program, and prioritizing health and wellness. Over time, Worcester Academy has developed a people-centric work-and-learning culture, focused on collaboration and commitment to community, and it has served the institution well during this pandemic. During crises, most leaders ask: “How do we address the immediate and urgent needs of multiple stakeholders, with limited resources and extreme uncertainties?” This question is daunting and compelling, but the first question should be: “What is our culture?” and then “What are we going to do to protect it?” Why are we what we are?

We still don’t understand the nature of the threat of COVID-19, starting from how long it will last or whether it will recur. We still don’t understand what permanent effects it will have. We don’t know how this contagion will affect the fundamentals of business long-term. In times of uncertainty, businesses with a defined culture have more stability.

Traditionally, when a business declines, it’s very easy to start cutting to reduce costs or make decisions going against the values of the organization to keep things afloat; however, those short-term measures have a huge impact on your long-term culture and the future of the business. Crisis does not and should not mean you stop doing all the things which make your business what it is, when it is thriving. If anything, this is the time when you need to dig in and put these things into overdrive. In times of challenge, you’re only as good as your decisions. Decisions come down to the foundations upon which you’ve built your business. Therefore, decisions on the way forward must be made with deep roots tied to the culture. While putting culture at the heart and acting quickly but staying focused on your purpose may not ensure a complete recovery from a crisis, it will show you stay true to who you are, which will benefit the brand and the people making up the organization in the long run. 

As Drucker reminds us, the reality is even the best-tuned strategic plan – which maps plausible scenarios, plots the business impacts, and pinpoints wildcards – cannot succeed in the absence of a winning culture. Culture resides in the hearts, minds, and souls of stakeholders, and unfortunately, it is often a serious casualty of crisis management. When the facts about how the future will evolve are unknown, the broad understanding of the core values driving an institution becomes more important than ever. 

Bonnie J. Walker is the interim director of equity and inclusion at Worcester Academy, plying this arena in education in Mass. for 16 years. Contact her at

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