Recently, I wrote, Five Steps to Guide Strategic Thinking, a blog post that emphasized the way leaders should organize their thoughts and behaviors in pursuing a strategic initiative. Last week, I was asked a question by a reader of the blog piece: “What precedes this process? Our leaders can think very strategically about their work. I’m just not sure it’s the right work. This is particularly true of those just below senior leaders.” It’s a great question, often overlooked in executive development.
The answer is alignment and prioritization, which correlate heavily with mindset. Most business strategies contain multiple components, usually three to five. As Michael Porter pointed out in his seminal piece, What is Strategy? (Harvard Business Review 1996), many of these components are focused on keeping pace with competitors and are not really strategic. Examples of this include cost-cutting, off-shoring and streamlining supply chain activities. These may be essential to business success, which elevates them to inclusion in strategy statements, but they are not really strategic. In contrast, development of new products and services, creative branding, breakthrough focus on employee engagement and entering new markets, to give a few examples, can be highly strategic. A great illustration of this is Apple’s strategy of introducing fresh disruptive technology to the mobile device market every year. There is little margin for error and distraction in getting this done.
It’s critical for leaders to grasp and achieve the truly strategic priorities within the company’s strategy statement. Yet, this can be difficult. Today’s leaders are under significant pressures to achieve quarterly bottom line numbers and need to move aggressively on non-strategic priorities to get this done. Added to this are current revenue targets that are linked to existing business activities. Moreover, Finance leadership monitors progress against these results regularly and leaders missing them are made brutally aware of shortfalls by regular reports as well as direct pressures from above. Not surprisingly, the real strategic priorities can slip through the cracks, particularly for leaders below the most senior levels.
Addressing this challenge is often the difference between breakthrough growth and running in place. Teaching leaders to understand the important strategic priorities and how to align their commitments — stated and, most importantly, emotional — requires senior leadership support coupled with aggressive, focused attention. We use workshops to help clients achieve this result using a four-step approach:
- Explaining the challenge, how to meet it and the benefits
- Demonstrating the new behaviors that will achieve proper alignment to strategy
- Role playing the new behaviors by workshop participants in small breakout groups under the guidance of our facilitators
- Targeted, post-workshop coaching of the leaders to ensure that they make sustainable progress on changing their behaviors
In preparing for the workshops, we work with senior executives who excel at strategic alignment to understand what works best in your organization. We do this through a combination of structured interviews and online behavioral job profiles. We then map the results of this work to our leadership competency library to express the “winning” behaviors in expanded, understandable form. This approach gives strong credibility for the need to change by showing the workshop participants what it takes to be a great strategic leader in your company. Senior leadership sponsorship of the workshops adds further to this powerful message.