I just Googled the word ‘strategy.’ About 646,000,000 results in 0.31 seconds. Holy search engine, that’s a lot of talk about strategy! Nothing like the internet for finding it, whatever it is. Blackjack strategy? Check. Hunting strategies? Got it. Dating strategies for men? Yep. For women? Of course. You can also find strategies to get rich, hide your microwave and break up with your boyfriend or girlfriend.
It’s all there, baby!
Which, of course, begs the question: Why make it 646,000,001 web results on the subject? Very frank answer: Because much of what is out there is a fuzzy representation of what strategic activity really is, especially in the corporate world. Strategy is often discussed like it is some kind of newly discovered idea. Or a secret scheme…or a lucky charm…or a magic formula…or a trick for hiding your microwave. Just because you call something a strategy or strategic does not make it so. Ever hear someone in the work place say something similar to this: “We need to quickly find a strategy to get [product] shipped to [customer] – they are completely out!” That makes me want to hack their computer while they are at lunch and change their screen saver slogan:
A knee-jerk reaction to a problem is not a strategy. Ever.
I am not going to take the time to define strategy here and now. You can search the web for a definition [irreverent smile]. I am, however, going to offer you a glimpse of what strategy minded leadership looks like in action. Strategic leaders do the following three things (and do them very well).
1. Obsess over the 'what' and 'why'
What are we doing and why are we doing it? Strategic leaders clarify these questions constantly. In meetings. On phone calls. To subordinates. To board members. In their sleep. When they can’t sleep. What and Why are the cornerstones of a company’s value proposition in the market place, from which all other strategic elements flow. For what purpose/need do we exist? Why is this important to customers/clients? Vision and impact.
Every division in the organization, including each level from top to bottom, is critically impacted by the What and Why. Strategic leaders keep those at the forefront of discussion as they guide, direct and influence. In fact, the further one moves down the org chart, the necessity of articulating What the company is doingand Why it is doing it becomes more important. It is called vision casting. When the What and Why are clear, employees can efficiently operate in their roles with empowerment and confidence, and without confusion or micromanagement.
Here's something that more leaders need to learn: The What and Why are the keys to mobilizing and motivating employees. People want satisfying work that makes logical, rational sense. They want assurance that What they are doing makes a difference, and Why their effort contributes to The Big Plan. The reality is, it's difficult for employees to give their best effort and offer transformational creativity when they are the least bit foggy on What is expected and Why it is important.
2. Stay 'vigilent' on the who
Strategic leaders first determine and articulate the What and Why, and then solve the Who issues. That order is important. All too often this is the opposite of what we see in our work environments where management comes up with an new initiative and promptly names the person in charge of implementation before carefully casting the vision. The initiative has a diminished chance of succeeding because What the company is doing and Why they are doing it has not been thoughtfully articulated. Instead, much attention gets paid to So-and-so who is celebrated as 'the right person' for the job. (Note to leadership: Anybody can seem like the right person for the job when we don't know What the job is and Why it matters.)
But don't think for a minute the Who is not important. The Who is always critical to success. It's like that popular saying from Peter Drucker: Culture eats strategy for breakfast. Drucker isn't saying that strategy isn't important, he's saying that the best strategy in the world will fail if organizational culture is faulty. What is culture? Culture is people. Don't fool yourself into thinking that your awesome strategy will work without the right people to implement. If an employee isn't a good cultural fit for the organization and its mission (What and Why) strategic leaders are attentive to the fact that they must deal with that problem (Who) promptly.
3. Demand organisational alignment
One of the best metaphors for understanding alignment is the wheels on our automobile. Alignment establishes the proper angles for the car tires to provide straight tracking and correct response to steering. A vehicle with its wheels out of alignment is inefficient and costly (tires and fuel, for starters).
Similarly, organizations out of alignment lack critical efficiency and pay a higher cost in real dollars and emotional expenses. Misaligned work environments are, after all, very frustrating for employees.
What is misalignment? It is not the 'natural tension' between two divisions. Take Sales and Operations, for example, where there will always be organizational tension: Sales wants more inventory and shorter lead-times, while Operations wants less inventory and longer production schedules. That is a natural, understandable tension. Misalignment occurs when the natural tension gets out of balance. If Sales ruled the day, the company would risk bankruptcy. If Operations had the ultimate say-so, there might not be any customers.
Strategic leaders, then, ensure alignment based on stated objectives, clear metrics, and properly distributed and balanced authority. Strategic leaders are hyper-attentive to symptoms resulting from alignment problems, and they are vigilant about finding solutions to misalignment immediately.
One more thing: Strategic leaders don't attempt to use tension or misalignment as a motivational tool. I once worked for a manager who thought that if he created enough friction and competitive tension between departments, people would dig deeper and perform better. The result was predictable (to some, at least): a higher degree of misalignment that led to dysfunction and hostility.
About the Author: Tim Szymanowski is Executive Director of Development at the University of Hawai‘i Foundation. Prior to higher education philanthropy work, Tim served in senior leadership roles at several private sector companies. He lives in Waikiki where he dabbles in guitar playing, surfing and writing. Follow Tim on LinkedIn
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