I was supporting the senior leadership team of a global service provider in taking their game to a new level. As part of my preparation for the work with this firm, I attended a PowerPoint presentation of the global vision, mission, and strategy of this firm.
It was spectacular both visually and in terms of its content. It was simple, clever, it used catchy phrases and it incorporated a few cool visual effects. It was one of the best I have seen (and I have seen many), I was impressed!
Then I started the work with the team, and I cannot begin to tell you how dysfunctional these leaders were. They had significant trust, cohesion and communication issues between each other, which also trickled down to their functions. They had many conflicts, which they avoided dealing with, they did not collaborate well, and they definitely were not aligned on their strategic objectives. Needless to say, the did not live up to their spectacular vision and mission.
There was such dissonance between their impressive strategy presentation and the way they actually behaved.
This senior team is no different from so many other teams I see. Obviously not every senior leadership team is highly dysfunctional. A few are really great, a few are really bad, and most are mediocre or average at best.
This dissonance only emphasizes the premise that any vision, mission or strategy are only as good as people’s relationship with them. By relationship I mean the degree that people genuinely understand, believe in, are committed to and feel a sense of personal ownership and accountability toward them.
Coming up with a spectacular strategy and PowerPoint deck is so easy and common. Transferring the words from the slides to people’s hearts and minds is the most challenging, but exciting tasks leaders have.
Unfortunately, I meet so many senior leaders who seem to be stuck in traditional, old-school thinking. They seem to believe that if they communicate their vision and strategy to their people – in a PowerPoint deck, no less – their people will automatically get it and own it.
But as we all know, nothing is further from the truth. Managers and employees don’t buy into strategies just like that. They have to be enrolled; they have to understand the business rationale and logic – the “why are we doing this?” They want to feel confident and be inspired, not merely taken for granted. And, they want to know that their leaders have what it takes to follow through and lead the strategy to conclusion, no matter how challenging the journey may be.
There is always pressure on senior leaders to provide leadership, not merely hide behind their rank and authority. Leaders need to inspire and bring their personal charisma, courage and stand to the game. Not every leader gets it, is committed to it and/or is capable of it.
Therefore, when answering the question “How good is your strategy?” you must include two dimensions: The content and context of the strategy.
The content means – is there is a clear, precise, robust and well-structured game plan (strategy, objectives, process, structure, etc.) that everyone understands the same way?
In so many organizations this seemingly common sense and simple step is not achieved in a powerful and effective way. Typically, the strategy is too high level, vague or conceptual, and different team members have different ideas, interpretations, agendas and priorities about the direction, methodology, process, and destination.
The context means – is there is a team dynamic (culture, environment, mindset etc.) in which everyone can truly be open, honest, authentic and courageous; an environment in which people feel “in it together”, even if they don’t all report to the same boss, which is the case in any matrix management environment; an environment in which everyone is excited about the game and feels genuine ownership commitment and accountability toward the bigger success?
Addressing the content alone will at best produce a dynamic of unenthusiastic compliance (and often frustrations, fear, and resignation). This will be insufficient for achieving a new, more powerful game. Alternatively, attending to the context alone will also not work because un-channeled enthusiasm will not be productive and effective, therefore it will not sustain as well.
When you examine the strength of your strategy don’t underestimate the value and importance of these two dimensions. A successful strategy relies 30% on its content and 70% on the context inside which it is being executed.
A strong context can compensate for weak content. However, strong content will not compensate for a weak context.