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Paper Beats Rock – Culture Beats Strategy
Attitude is Everything Wellbeing Solutions
Justin Coulson

Paper Beats Rock – Culture Beats Strategy

“Justin, we need a new strategy. What we’re doing isn’t working.”

The company director I was speaking with was desperate. Staff were disengaged. Productivity was down. There were complaints from customers.

The conversation was nearly identical to something a school principal had said to me only two weeks earlier: “We have to change what we are doing. The whole strategic plan needs a shake-up. The teachers are frustrated, the parents and students can sense it, and the school is in real trouble.”

My response was the same for both of these leaders:

“Strategy matters enormously. It is an imperative that we create solid strategy. But culture eats strategy for breakfast.”

Think about your family.

How often do you say, “Alright! New plan. We’re going to do a family activity on the weekends. We’re going to sharpen our morning routine. And we’re going to change the way we speak to each other by always asking if it’s True, Helpful, Inspiring, Necessary, and Kind.”

Next thing you know, the strategy has fallen over and nothing changes, because the family culture is built around sarcasm and caustic, acrid comments to others, sleeping in on weekends, and an aversion to routine.

Maybe it’s your classroom agenda to create a great plan for the year so everyone works hard, plays by the rules, and gets along. You’ve got your vision. You’ve developed the pathways. You have a strategy. But three days in and a couple of the stronger personalities in the classroom are destroying your perfect plan. The culture is overriding strategy. Paper beats rock.

I talked to the company director I mentioned earlier about culture being essential to the execution of good strategy. She confessed, “Our Manager is toxic. He hates his job. He hates customers. He doesn’t want to deal with staff. He refuses to hold them accountable.” And the list went on.

After suggesting school culture might be upsetting strategy, the school principal I was speaking to informed me that “we have a real culture of back-biting, undermining, and mistrust” because of some management decisions several years prior.

While strategy (your plan for getting to your vision) is very important, it is culture that determines the extent to which you execute the strategy – and the pace of that execution.

Culture is the cumulative total of the behaviours of the people in your organisation. If the staff help one another, you have a service-oriented strategy. If they second-guess one another, you have a culture of mistrust.

Think of this in terms of your organisation’s success for a moment (school or otherwise, but I will use a school as an example here):

Let’s say your vision is to be known as the school in your community that places student wellbeing as the central value that drives everything you do. You can have the best consultant to guide you, the best professional development for your staff to learn and execute wellbeing practice, terrific staff meetings, perfect newsletter material for parents, and a top-notch marketing plan. You even have sufficient personnel and other resources. These are all the strategic elements required for you to achieve your vision.

But if the essence of who you and your colleagues are – at your core – is not aligned with your strategy, you’ll fail. If the teachers refuse to show gratitude, ignore student strengths, fail to go the extra mile, lack a willingness to exercise their emotional intelligence, or demonstrate a kindness and compassion deficit, then there is a culture problem. Achieving that vision will be a long, hard slog.

The same applies in the classroom.

If your vision as a teacher is to have outstanding students who love learning, are enthusiastic, and who are supportive of one another, it’s one thing to develop a strategy. But again, regardless of the brilliance of the strategy, the culture will win. You have to be passionately curious, endlessly empathic, and authentically concerned for their success. Most of them will catch your culture and mimic it.

Strategy is the top of the iceberg. Culture is what lies under the water. We can’t see it. But it is the central element that drives our capacity to achieve our vision and execute our strategy.

Achieving your vision is most likely when you have a great strategy and you combine it with a powerfully positive culture. When they are aligned, supporting one another, success is far more likely. Still tough to achieve… but far more likely.


Every year, as January ticks over and Professional Development is kicked off in schools and organisations, I deliver presentations to staffs around building a culture of wellbeing and positivity, aligned with Positive Psychology research.

Building a Positive Culture around wellbeing takes time. Tweaking or changing culture is not a quick fix but getting culture right means any worthwhile strategy can be executed more effectively, helping us to achieve our vision.

Leadership and culture start with YOU. If you’re not creating the culture intentionally, you’re contributing to it unintentionally.

If you’d like to know more about creating a Positivity and Wellbeing culture in your school or organisation for 2023 get in touch with me. Let’s do something positive about culture where you work, teach, or play.

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About the Author

Justin Coulson

Dr Justin Coulson is one of Australia's most trusted parenting experts and authors and holds a PhD in Psychology. He is the founder of Happy Families (a website of parenting resources and advice) as well as the co-host and parenting expert on Channel Nine's Parental Guidance.

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