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Your Leadership Strategy Is Set. Now Ace the Alignment (Video)

Feb. 28, 2023
Empowered execution is key—people on the front line have to understand the priorities of the company and be ready and able to make decisions that make a difference.

IndustryWeek's elite panel of regular contributors.

Editor's note: This is a repost of an earlier article, with video added in this version.

At this point in the year, most businesses have set their goals, are putting final touches on their strategic plans, completing their strategy offsites, and rolling this year’s plan out to employees. Game on!

Jim Hardy, chief operating officer at Traeger Pellet Grills, told me 2023 is “mission critical” for companies like his that saw extraordinary gains during the pandemic. His leadership team is “pushing our strategy deployment down to the lowest levels of the organization”, he said. 

Empowered execution is key—people on the front line have to understand the priorities of the company and be ready and able to make decisions that make a difference. Strategy execution in the first and second quarters will differentiate competitors in Hardy’s industry.

Businesses are hunkering down to take extra measures to make sure they hit their plans. Alignment is essential for strategy execution as we go into 2023.

“What I have seen by being on different boards, is that everyone has their own way of managing,” said Glen Tellock, retired CEO of Lakeside Foods and Manitowoc Co. “But if you don’t have alignment, it doesn’t work.”

Alignment is a set of practices and ways of working that permeates all levels of high-performing organizations – starting at the top, all the way to the front line. An employee’s alignment, which affects their day-to-day actions, can range from zero or even negative (apathy and sabotage), to buy-in and full commitment.

An individual’s degree of alignment is a personal choice; however, most people don’t see it that way. They think they are either aligned or not—that’s just how it is. Moreover, they don’t have a framework or language to gauge the level of alignment they have or know how to change it. 

Quite often, employees react to a decision based on how it feels or whether they agree with it or not. People tend to see what’s wrong with something and get stuck on that rather than look to see how they can get aligned. 

It’s the executive’s job to build alignment. The senior leader needs to engage his or her senior team and next-level leaders to create the discipline of sharing background conversations, listening generously, providing forums to ask questions and using the alignment model to test for alignment.  

How do you know if alignment is missing? There are obvious signs like people taking actions that seem to be at odds with the strategy or missing key milestones. A more subtle sign is decisions are hard to make—they take too long or people don’t stick to them once they are made. It feels “hard” to get things done and takes extra time and explanation to get people into action. There is a sense of apathy and low energy in the organization. There are too many priorities, and people are always too busy to respond to requests from their peers. These are all signs that leaders and employees are not aligned sufficiently to execute on the strategy.

Building Alignment in an Organization

How do you help ensure your leaders and your workforce are aligned to the strategy and actions required to achieve your 2023 targets?  Here are some best practices:

1. Be clear where alignment is (and is not) needed. It may be critical to be aligned on the vision, but not on the details of how someone runs their department.

2. Say what needs to be said in order to get aligned, and listen generously to the response so people feel safe sharing their thoughts.

3. Focus on listening for alignment versus what’s wrong to speed up the alignment process

4. Let go when it’s time to let go after having the tough conversations.

5. Once the decision is made, own it, support it, speak for it, make it work. 

6. Coach each other when behavior or speaking is not consistent with the aligned decision.

7. Test for alignment as a regular practice. Restate what you think you are aligned on and use a simple thumb test

8.  Encourage proposals from the person who is not yet aligned; avoid trying to convince them. 

It’s important to realize alignment has layers. It’s not enough for senior teams to be aligned just on a decision or strategic direction. They must aligned on the implications of that decision. 

One company we work with in the transportation sector did a great job of setting their overall direction for the next few years and their budgets for 2023.  An executive on the senior team went ahead and announced a reorganization of his department, which included adding some headcount. 

The leader was shocked to find his peers had a problem with him doing that without consulting them. Why could he add heads in his department, when with the reorganization they had the impression they weren’t allowed to in theirs? The conclusion everyone came to was that clearly the team didn’t trust each other. 

But is that really what was going on? Possibly. But more than likely this was an alignment issue.

It turns out, that while the team discussed the budget and overall strategy and was aligned on both of those, they never talked about the implications of the new budget on major actions they were planning to implement. They agreed to the budget and moved on. They had not discussed what execution meant for each of their departments.

This happens quite often, especially with regard to headcount additions or reductions, project investments and resource assignments. There is alignment on the overall targets and direction, but the conversation often doesn’t get into the negotiation required to align on which parts of the company are being invested in and where the costs are coming out.  The people and project impacts are also not discussed. If there are disagreements about what is being done, the first place to look is where an alignment conversation was missing. Working through the discipline of alignment builds trust and speed in executing strategy.

Once CEO, Glen Tellock, has alignment in the organization, “no surprises and bad news first” is an important rule, he explains. True alignment involves transparent conversations where people share what’s in the background for them and bring up things they are thinking but not necessarily saying out loud. The ability to share these background conversations openly and honestly at all levels of the organization is essential to maintaining alignment over time.

“People may say they are aligned, but sometimes people are just saying what the CEO or senior leader wants to hear, said Glen. “It’s either thumbs up or thumbs down. If you have a background conversation, say what it is and what is needed to get aligned. Once you have the alignment, and maintain it, you just have to manage the business. I think getting true alignment is harder than just running the business.”

This is Part One of a three-part Leadership on Point series on strategy execution. 

Carolyn Hendrickson, Ph.D. is CEO and founding partner of Tandem Group, a firm that specializes in strategy, organization, and leadership.  She has over 30 years of experience in working with CEOs, senior executives, and boards of directors to achieve and sustain breakthrough results in their businesses through accelerated growth and change. She is known for her work in strategic planning, leadership alignment, large-scale organization change, and cultural transformation.

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