So many of the factors that impact the successful execution of a strategy boil down to alignment. Is everyone clear, in agreement and working towards the same vision? No strategy can succeed if the teams within the organization are not focused on what is strategically important. It takes a company of people to drive a strategy through, but if they’re pulling in different directions you’ll never reach your desired destination.
So, where do you start when it comes to aligning everyone around your strategy? The answer: you start at the top. If your leadership team are not aligned, no one else will be. It’s crucial that you don’t start communicating your strategy through the organization until you’re 100% confident that your leaders are all in agreement.
Flush Out the Doubts
Hopefully your leadership team have been the main participants in your strategic planning process. It will have been these top-level executives who have attended the strategy sessions, worked through the analysis and be making the strategic decisions. However, it’s important not to assume their involvement guarantees their agreement, full support or alignment. Don’t underestimate people’s propensity to avoid ‘rocking the boat’; the temptation to keep quiet about niggling doubts because the lunch hour is approaching or everyone is tired from a long session; the tendency to wonder if your concerns are founded if no one else has mentioned it. There are many reasons that people may sit on their concerns and misgivings, but you can be sure that they will quietly grow and eventually undermine the leadership team alignment.
Therefore, to achieve true alignment around the strategy, you should confront those possibilities head on and hold a separate and explicit session, towards the end of the strategic planning process - when you feel close to having a final strategy plan – that is all about airing any doubts, differences in opinions or belief in how achievable everything is. Make explicit everyone’s assumptions and try to weed out different interpretations.
Ask each leader to describe each level of the strategy in their own words – from the vision right down to goals and targets. Ask them to describe what success would look like at each stage. This should help you see how each leader has interrupted the strategy and will highlight any differences that can then be addressed.
Next ask each leader to list a certain number of concerns – and tell them in advance that they’ll be required to do this, so they have time to think about it. Even if your leaders are fully confident in the strategy, ask them to purposely be contrarian, play devil’s advocate and try and identify at least one aspect that might need further questioning.
In addition to this face-to-face session, set up a mechanism for feedback away from the team meeting. Ensure everyone has had time to properly reflect on the plan and consider it thoroughly. Be mindful that some people think best away from others, at different points in the day and may need that space in order to gather their true feelings about the strategy. Then give them the opportunity to submit any feedback, concerns, questions or challenges which you can then all come together to discuss. By having both a face-to-face session to air doubts or concerns, and the opportunity to submit issues in writing, you’ll ensure you’ve covered everyone’s preferred way of communicating this sort of thing.
Whether you are the CEO or the Chief Strategy Officer, it’s crucial that your fellow c-suite leaders feel as responsible for the strategy as you. Instilling this joint sense of ownership across the whole leadership team can be particularly challenging if you’re the CSO or VP of Strategy and you’re the only one with strategy in their job title! But it’s crucial that you don’t end up with a sense that the strategy is your thing and the other leaders have their divisions or functions to focus on. If there’s the sense that strategic success would mean a big pat on the back for you and you alone, then you’ll never achieve alignment across the leadership team.
You need to ensure that each person on the leadership team feels they are owning the strategy with their fellow leadership teammates. Without this sense of ownership, you will struggle to get true consensus and alignment – people will keep quiet about their doubts or misgivings as it’s not their key focus, it’s yours. And then they just won’t give it the focus with their teams that they would if they were 100% bought-in, invested and committed.
One way to do this, alongside having run a supportive, collaborative strategic planning process, is to assign ownership of particular areas of the strategy to specific members of the leadership team. Ideally each strategic objective would have a single, accountable owner from the senior leadership. If not at the objective level, then certainly at the level of goals. While other leaders will undoubtedly contribute and their teams will collaborate, having one clear owner will ensure there’s a definite point of contact should any issues of crossover arise. Each leader will know who ‘owns’ that area of the strategy, so should be consulted or informed when potential conflicts or duplication appears.
Bond as a Team
Another way to help solidify the sense of team ownership, is to focus on establishing a team bond. Each leader heads up their own team in their division or department and it may be that their stronger connection is with that team. In order for a leadership team to feel like a true team who have created a strategy together and are equally commited to it, they need to feel a connection to their fellow leaders and see that group as a team, rather than a collection of leaders of other teams sat around a table. They need to feel strongly that they’re part of this team, as much as they are part of their divisional team.
Do some good old-fashioned team building - have some downtime together and build relationships, so that there’s trust and respect there. That will ensure everyone feels they can safely debate, challenge and support each other and are less likely to break ranks and go off on their own.
Your leaders don’t necessarily all have to like each other, but it really, really helps. Understand that there will be different personalities across the team (and that’s a good thing), so make sure you have a range of activities to do together so that everyone is given the chance to feel relaxed in their preferred social setting. Don’t force the reserved, sensible CFO into a Karaoke booth and expect them to become lifelong mates with the Sales Leader, and similarly, don’t just take the team to a poetry reading and expect them all to have a wonderful time. Be sensitive to the personalities in the team and find something that everyone will feel relaxed doing.
Once you feel your leadership team are all on the same page and confident that the execution can begin, do not drop your focus on alignment. Priorities can slip, focus can be lost and teams can gradually move off track. Make sure you have regular, formal alignment check-ins.
Get each member of the leadership team to do an audit of all the major initiatives in their area and what part of the strategy they contribute to. Present these back to the leadership group and it will help weed out how much is being done that is not aligned to the strategy and highlight that to the leaders. Run these sessions regularly as a routine alignment check.
Ensure you have a solid structure to your ongoing team management with well-structured meetings, regular communications and a consistent way of reporting updates. Being disciplined and organized around all your leadership team encounters will help you stay aligned.
It can be a real challenge to spot misalignment when leaders are presenting their updates and progress reporting in different ways and different formats. Having to make sense of each leader’s different reporting approach can prevent you getting true clarity on how each leader is or is not aligned with the strategy and the other leaders. Therefore, you should establish a consistent way of delivering strategic updates and reporting on results. Each member of the leadership team using the same system, putting their updates in the same place and ensuring everyone can access it.
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