Leading Strategic Alignment

Richard Eaton

“Every man is guilty of all the good he did not do.”

-Voltaire –

Improvement plans, or strategies, are important and worthy products developed by organizations in order to “do good” in some way. One facet of leadership that I have found most interesting is the importance of executing; of establishing a solid alignment between:

  • developing a vision, and
  • taking action to realize it.

Many organizations implement improvement plans to great effect. For example, following the introduction of an execution-focused approach, Electronic Data Solutions achieved record revenues, solid market share gains, and chalked up eleven consecutive quarters of double digit growth. Other organizations, tragically, see their strategies rendered useless in the face of inaction and a lack of execution. This paradox is often referred to as the Execution Gap: the gap between planning and action. Steven Covey notes that “Execution is the great unaddressed issue in most organizations today. So many crucial initiatives fail, so many change efforts collapse, due to this yawning gap”.

I’ve been a management consultant for over 25 years now and have had the pleasure of working with thousands of people in hundreds of public and private sector businesses. Few things make me happier than to see the good work of these engaged and passionate people implemented to good effect. Conversely, few things frustrate me (and them) more than to see the results of a lot of hard work fall flat on its face due to a lack of execution. 

So what is the solution to the execution gap? What is the best way to lead strategic alignment?

To the eternal frustration of those with high workloads, low budgets and short attention spans, the solution is less than obvious and not as easy as just ‘ordering’ others to do it. In my experience there are almost always three key, dynamic forces at play when trying to lead any kind of change in organizational alignment:

  1. Strategic planning practices
  2. Leadership approaches
  3. Learning culture dynamics

Let’s take a closer look at these three criteria:

  1. Strategic Planning Practices

Strategic planning practices have traditionally been ‘ivory tower’ exercises, open only to a select few. Sequestered in camera, planning teams will slave away trying to figure everything out to the last detail then, usually, announce changes with great fanfare and ceremony with many promises of future benefits. Although this may have been a viable approach many years ago, when organizations could depend on a relatively high level of certainty, in the chaos that is the present day reality for most organizations, these unilateral, top down driven approaches are short lived: like opening an umbrella in a hurricane, they are usually shredded into confetti.

So what kind of planning approaches work best these days?

The best way to create ownership of the strategy is to get everyone involved in building it—to empower them. The result must be a plan with ownership facilitated by a cross organizational team that is well resourced and empowered. As Covey said, execution success is “all about executing the strategy: set up the structure, get the right people in the right jobs with the right tools and support, and then get out of the way and give help as requested”.

  1. Leadership Approaches

So what kind of leaders are the most effective? Humble ones, who can walk the talk a.k.a. Ego-centric control freaks need not apply because boss, it’s all about you.

The best strategic alignment initiatives are led by transformational leaders. Transformational leadership is a style that transforms people or an organization from one state to another, primarily through empowerment. In contrast to charismatic leaders who tend to (egotistically) focus on themselves as the key component of any change initiative, transformational leaders do more things that will empower followers and make them less dependent on the leader. Gary Yukl, a world-renowned thought leader in this realm, says that these things include:

  • delegating significant authority to individuals
  • developing follower skills and self-confidence
  • creating self-managed teams
  • providing direct access to sensitive information
  • eliminating unnecessary controls, and
  • building a strong culture to support empowerment.

Leaders must encourage involvement in decision making by everyone, and encourage the emergence of leaders everywhere. Peter Drucker warns “most discussions of decision making assume that only senior executives make decisions. This is a dangerous mistake. Decisions are made at every level of the organization”. Also, while it’s important for leaders to communicate verbally to promote change, the best way they can lead strategic alignment is to demonstrate it through their actions. William Bridges says that “Leaders need to realize that they communicate more by actions than by words”. Good transformational leaders therefore seek opportunities to demonstrate their support of strategic alignment through their personal example.

  1. Learning Culture Dynamics

The prevailing learning culture will determine to what extent people at all levels may engage in the planning and execution process, and the level of risk leaders are willing to take. Successfully realigning organizational strategy requires high levels of innovation and creativity, which assumes accepting a certain level of risk. William Bridges says that leaders must “encourage experimentation and embrace losses, setbacks, or disadvantages as entry points into new solutions”.

In ‘fail safe’ organizations, people are punished for getting things wrong. In ‘safe to fail’ organizations, people are recognized and rewarded for getting things right. To be successful, you must promote a safe to fail learning culture within an overall climate of responsible risk taking. In short, accept that you will likely skin your knee once or twice on your execution journey and….

Be bold.

So, in answer to my original questions: What is the solution to the execution gap? What is the best way to lead strategic alignment?

  1. During the planning process: Keep it learning focused
  2. Leaders at all levels remember: It’s all about you
  3. When it’s time to act: Be bold.

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