CEOs and C-level executives who set out to bring lasting change to their organizations have thought about this one for a long time, and for many it has been a real conundrum.

It’s a chicken-and-egg question: Do you start by shifting the cultural DNA of your company, and that transformation will then lead to the desired results?

Or is it the other way around, and you first have to impact productivity, which will then catalyze a change in morale, attitudes, and ultimately the culture?

The Example of Apple

Did Steve Jobs start by pulling for extraordinary service by Apple store clerks, or did he start by building the Apple culture and aligning every employee on those core values?

At first glance, according to several Apple employees and training manuals, the driver might be culture. Sales associates, for example, are taught an unusual sales philosophy: not to sell, but to consult. Cool and affable techies at the “Genius Bar” help customers solve problems.

The Wall Street Journal writes that Apple lays it out in the acronym APPLE:

  • “Approach customers with a personalized warm welcome”
  • “Probe politely to understand all the customer’s needs”
  • “Present a solution for the customer to take home today”
  • “Listen for and resolve any issues or concerns”
  • “End with a fond farewell and an invitation to return”

Was it Performance First?

But it might just as well be the opposite:  results drive culture. Apple seems to put intense focus on performance, starting with its stores.

It’s hard to remember now, but when Jobs came back to Apple in 1996 after his ouster 11 years earlier, the Apple brand had become so weak that mass retailers refused to stock Macintoshes.

While Apple was developing new products, Mr. Jobs knew they would have little impact if consumers couldn’t find them, say people familiar with the situation at the time. So fixing Apple’s retail strategy became a high priority. That was the source of the Apple store strategy.

What do you think? What do you have to begin with—results or culture? Where is the leverage? I look forward to reading your comments.

Thomas D. Zweifel, PhD is a Zurich based consultant with Insigniam, an international management consulting firm. You can connect with him here or through the Insigniam Executive Forum on LinkedIn.

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