CEO Ajen Sita explains how culture eats strategy for breakfast

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CEO Ajen Sita explains how culture eats strategy for breakfast

Dec 9, 2023 | Strategy & Leadership

A recommended book on corporate leadership is A CEO Only Does Three Things by Trey Taylor. Taylor argues that a CEO should only concern himself with Culture, People and Numbers. If any item in his/her diary does not have a direct impact on these three things, it is a distraction that should be delegated to someone else.

Companies are made up of people, and the company’ s culture is best expressed by its identity. As the leader of the organisation, the CEO is responsible for aligning the company’ s culture with the shared values of its people. In addition, culture is what Taylor believes is the company’s most competitive advantage. It is a concept whose roots touch every corner of the business.

When culture thrives, you attract talented people who perform exceptionally on behalf of the business, which drives positive growth in your numbers. When the culture of a company is broken, the best people in the business are driven away and the ones who stay are unlikely to act in the best interests of the business.

Culture is the ethical environment in which we live and work, including the beliefs, behavioral rules, traditions, and rituals that bind us together. So, every group of people has a culture; it is like the water that surrounds a fish. A CEO cannot create a culture through decree, but they can affect and shape it over time.

EY culture

In my discussion with the CEO of EY in Africa Ajen Sita, it was immediately apparent that he has a deep understanding of culture and its importance to the success of his organisation.

“I am a product of the EY culture,” he begins. “I see myself having a central role to preserve the culture that I have been a part of during my 28 years here and to drive necessary changes as it evolves.  Culture is something that is written into the DNA of a company. It’s part of our very fabric. It’s not something that changes at its core. However, we adapt it as times change, for example, taking on a hybrid work environment in the post-pandemic era.”

Ajen believes that the fundamentals of EY culture have remained intact over the years. It is a quality that has helped the organization in the absence of rules, policies or systems that force people to act in a particular way. What culture does is that it provides a guide, a reference and sense of direction for people as to what is acceptable in the company environment.

“Culture helps people make decisions about right and wrong. It goes beyond being a negative policing thing. We’ve tried to use culture to create the sense of belonging so that people can identify with the organization and what it stands for and still be unique as an individual. Our work on culture has been to try and create experiences for our people which fosters a sense of belonging.”

As an example, the company is running a campaign dubbed I AM EY which has been very visible on social media.  The key message is that at EY, they are more than just their work as auditors, tax consultants, strategy experts and technology specialists. They are ‘dreamers, adventurers, football fans, musicians, performers and more’. The campaign features different employees tell their unique stories and the impact they are making in line with EY’s pay off line of building a better working world.      

Strategy

Legendary management consultant Peter Drucker once said that ‘culture eats strategy for breakfast’.  He prioritises getting the company culture right but that does not mean strategy is unimportant.

‘Many people think the choices that they’re going to make, the priorities you’re going to set and decisions they are going to make are what define strategy,’ Ajen supposes. ‘To me, the essence of strategy is actually it’s context. It is about understanding the external market, changing trends, patterns, dynamics, expectations of our clients and society as a whole. Everything we then bring to the table has got to match that after having understood our resources and capabilities.’

Ajen spends a lot of time strategizing and says setting a strategy is not an event but a dynamic process of constant market scanning and then having the agility and adaptability to respond to it in a practical form. He comes up with ideas that allow EY to be more competitive in meeting the needs of their clients in the short, medium and long term.

‘Most things over time will be copied so the question you have to ask is whether you are able to have agility built into your system. For us this involves creating a learning culture in the organization and teaching our people to ask better questions. Our business sells the cumulative knowledge of our people so we want our people to always be investing in themselves beyond what they did at a university.’

Ajen describes himself as a philosopher having completed a three-year course in the discipline through Vedanta Academy’s online programme. ‘It kept me busy during the COVID-19 lockdown among other activities. I bought a pizza oven and learnt how to make pizza for my son who thinks there is no other food group in this world and my wife also taught me how to paint art pieces.’

A pizza-making philosopher professor with a paint brush, EY has a man of many talents at its helm.

This article is an extract from the book THE CEO X FACTOR – available here https://www.takealot.com/the-ceo-x-factor/PLID92980382

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