One of the quickest ways to watch a strategy and vision unravel after its inception is to start with an Executive team that’s not aligned.
Because it’s one of the pre-requisites of the successful launch of a strategic or change narrative into a business, the question ‘is your senior team aligned?’ is one we always ask our clients at the outset. I can’t remember a time when I’ve talked to a new client at the start of an engagement who’s sagely nodded and said ‘yes, our Executive is aligned’, at least not without a wry smile. By alignment, we are not talking about ‘broad agreement’ with a strategy. We are talking about complete and utter unity, where the Executive team is speaking as one, and there is no room for dissent. ‘Slightly aligned’ doesn’t exist. It’s like being slightly pregnant. You either are, or you’re not.
Of course, every individual will look at the strategy through a different lens. It’s normal for those responsible for different aspects of the operation to have different perspectives. After all, the richness and diversity that Executive teams bring to the table is a huge asset to any business. And in the shaping a strategy or strategic narrative there will of course be arguments, different points of view and many an ‘energetic’ conversation around the Board table.
But when that narrative is signed off, to be disseminated through every layer of the organisation, the senior team must be speaking as one: ‘One Story, One Team, One Voice’. With every departure from the party line, with every ‘tweak’ to the Story “because it’s not relevant to us”, or “I’ve cut that bit out because it’s the bit that I didn’t agree with”, the story becomes a massive Chinese whisper. By the time it’s reached the grass roots of the organisation, it bears no resemblance to the story being told in other parts of the business. And that story, in turn, might just as well come from another organisation for its similarity to the one being told down the road. The end result will be confusion, lack of clarity, inefficiency, disorientation, lack of teamwork, poor behaviour and a disfunctional culture: an organisation that’s pulling in every direction but the one you want, with a discredited Executive team looking on helplessly, wondering what the hell happened.
There are a few courses of action to take to avoid such entropy:
1. Allow every member of the Executive team to have a voice when shaping the story. In this way everyone will take ownership of the story and will champion it as a team
2. Don’t assume everyone is aligned just because the CEO gave final sign-off. Take time as a team to come together to iron out the wrinkles and clarify the nuances of the story. Listen to and respect each others’ views before it’s finalised. Two, three or more times if necessary.
3. Keep the story reasonably high-level. The devil is in the detail, and you risk alienating large swathes of the organisation if you try and include the minutiae that sits behind the story, which will vary from region to region, division to division, team to team.
4. Commit to the story and to each other. Role model constantly. Agree the ground rules before the stable door is opened. Maintain visible unity in public and keep any disagreements for the privacy of the Boardroom
5. Keep the story at the forefront of every conversation that takes place in the business. In this way you will maintain alignment around key messages, whilst having the freedom of interpretation according to your local environment or team
6. Allow leaders to personalise the story so they too can take ownership of it. This means bringing it to life with personal anecdotes and data from their own part of the business
7. Be honest and authentic when telling the story. Don’t try and whitewash it with good news if there’s an uncomfortable truth or challenge to be resolved
8. Hire an external consultant(s) to shape the story with you. It’s sometimes easier to talk honestly and openly to a third party and/or peer and it’s certainly valuable to have an experienced, objective Executive facilitator at the table
9. Regroup regularly to reaffirm commitment to the story and progress being made
10. Remove hard-core terrorists from the team if they are simply unwilling to tow the party line. It sounds drastic, but will save you millions in the long run and will avoid putting the strategy at risk
Co-founder and Director