A few years ago, Dave Ulrich and I published an article in Leadership Excellence entitled “The Vowels of Strategy.” This piece has become the basis for many discussions and training sessions about how to involve the entire workforce in the strategic process, a subject I address frequently with clients. Since the publication of this article and following new insights from client engagements, I’ve updated elements of this framework.
Recently, we were working with a group of vice-presidents at a large financial services company when the subject turned to strategy and how to become better strategists. Though several levels removed from the senior leadership team, these VP’s were bemoaning the fact that they were expected to become more strategic, despite not being involved in creating the company’s strategy. This was certainly not the first time we had heard this type of thing. In fact, most conversations around strategy usually focus on one of two areas: first, what exactly is strategy and how do you create it, or second, how can employees at different levels in the company become more strategic. One of the problems inherent to either discussion is the idea that strategy is simply a document or a plan. This misconception seems to be widely held and becomes very problematic for employees who are not involved in the creation of that strategy. May we suggest that the best way to counter this problem is to think in terms of a strategic processwhere certain responsibilities and specific behaviors lead to the successful implementation of a strategic plan rather than simply thinking of, and talking about, strategy. We want to propose a way for all employees within an organization to better understand their responsibility and also easily remember key behaviors that will lead to the successful implementation of a strategy.
First of all, don’t think strategy, think strategic process. There are three essential components in the strategic process: creation, translation, and execution.
Senior leaders have the responsibility to create the overall organizational strategy. Most people think of this type of strategy when considering what it means to be a strategist and it keeps individuals at other levels of an organization from understanding the importance of their role in the strategic process. Creating a plan is the initiating action in a sequence of events that leads to the successful implementation of strategy. However, the overall strategic process, not just this first step, ultimately permits strategy to become a reality. Senior leaders have the responsibility to create a plan that is drawn from careful consideration of the current state of the company, the marketplace, and the broader environment. This plan must articulate the way forward and speak to all stakeholders. It has to offer something better than the current state and support the core values of the organization. The five behaviors required for the creation of strategy are:
Aspire. Simply stated, it is the “vision thing.” Senior leaders creating a strategy must aspire to something more than the current state. The strategic plan they create must appeal to the basic human desire to improve, achieve, and reach a better place, all while accomplishing business objectives. The aspirational qualities of the strategy must also be compelling and speak to the desires and emotions of stakeholders.
Evaluate. Evaluating current realities as well as the wider environment are keys to creating a complete strategy. It is not enough for senior leaders to simply consider what is happening inside the company. The creation of strategy demands an evaluation of many things outside the company. Good evaluation also requires looking at how the strategy impacts all levels of the organization and its stakeholders.
Integrate. All organizations have existing practices, plans, projects, and, indeed, constraints. An actionable strategy takes these into account and a wise leadership team will integrate current plans with those that already exist.
Optimize. A meaningful strategy will attempt to optimize a company’s resources. Senior leaders need to ensure they are considering everything at their disposal when creating a strategy. To optimize is to utilize to the highest and most complete extent—this type of strategy reaches into all levels of the organization and touches all employees.
Uphold. A successful strategy will uphold a company’s mission, vision, and values. It will stand in support of, rather than in opposition to, the good that already exists within the organization. Senior leaders are the stewards and guardians of these important differentiators and strategic plans and they must uphold what distinguishes the company in the minds of its stakeholders.
The manager’s role is to translate the strategy so that it is meaningful to employees. Within a company hierarchy, managers generally understand what is important to specific groups of employees much better than senior leadership. Managers should know their own people, what is important to them, and what will be required of them to make the strategy successful. This responsibility is akin to the role a translator plays when they take language that is incomprehensible for one party and turn it into something that is meaningful. Good managers can connect each employee’s work directly with the high-level strategy. Their responsibility to translate makes them keys to cascading the strategy and ensuring that it is understood throughout the organization. The five behaviors for this responsibility in the strategic process are:
Align. The manager is a gate-keeper, receiving information from senior leadership and then being tasked with cascading that to employees. One of their key behaviors is to align everything such that there is line-of-site and clarity in prioritization.
Educate. It is not enough to simply translate into meaningful language, managers are also educators. Managers are constantly teaching and, in the case of strategy, educating employees to understand the high-level strategy, as well as the specific part they will play in ensuring its implementation. As educators, they share information that is new and previously unknown in a manner that is clear and actionable.
Inform. It goes without saying that managers must communicate, communicate, communicate. They need to be constantly informing their staff both through words and actions. They must recognize the inadequacy of single channels of communication and must find ways to creatively and constantly communicate.
Organize. Elements of organization include project management, work planning, and prioritization of efforts. It is not enough to only translate, educate, and inform, managers must also ensure that employees know the specific actions that are required of them. The manager needs to organize and enable employees and their actions.
Utilize. The manager needs to know their available resources and how to employ them in order to implement the strategic plan. Utilizing all available resources is a key to ensuring that every employee has a connection to the strategic process and feels that they are making a contribution.
Perhaps the most critical element of the strategic process is execution. While vitally important, much of what happens in the creation and translation of the strategic process is driven by planning, rhetoric, and change management. It is in execution, however, that strategic traction truly takes place. Here words become action and the strategic process is brought to successful implementation. The five behaviors for the successful execution of strategy are:
Apply. Employees need to take the information they have received from their managers, which has been successfully translated, and apply it to their own situation and work. Application implies a type of attachment such that things cannot be easily separated. That is what happens when employees apply the strategy—they become bound to it.
Engage. To become engaged requires that employees establish a connection—a bond—with the strategic plan and, indeed, the broader organization. Engagement implies commitment and commitment leads to meaningful contributions on the part of employees.
Innovate. Employees can often bring great insight and innovation to the execution of the strategic plan if they are given the opportunity. Wise managers committed to employee development ensure there is room for these types of innovation.
Own. Employees need to find and feel a sense of ownership of the strategy in order to successfully play their role in the process. This is one of the key reasons to think in terms of a strategic process and not just a plan—so that there is room for ownership at all levels. The front-line employee must not feel so distant from the strategy and its creation that they have nothing to do with it--they must understand the overall strategy and feel a sense of ownership—especially for their contribution.
Understand. Communication is a two-way street and, just as we believe the manager needs to communicate constantly, we believe employees must fulfill their end of the communication process by understanding what has been delivered to them by their manager. Understanding implies that employees will question and inquire and not be satisfied until they are confident that they understand.
Finally, there is one other thing we learned in grade school that we have not forgotten, which is the well-known caveat that in addition to these five vowels, there is sometimes “Y.” In this case, this may be the most important vowel of all. “Y,” at all levels, is for “You.” We believe it is true that implementing a strategy is more about people than it is about plans. Everyone must work together and practice the appropriate behaviors that will make the process successful because, ultimately, plans and vision deliver promises, but people deliver results.
The key is to recognize when we talk about an organization and its strategy, it is more than just the creation of plans—it is an overall process that also requires meaningful translation and successful execution. Once all employees understand their roles, strategy becomes much more than just ideas and concepts, it becomes an actionable process: plans will become reality and all involved, from the boardroom to the showroom, from the executive suite to the factory floor, will know that they truly are a part of the company strategy. This is the way that all employees at all levels in the organization can become strategic—through the practice of specific behaviors which will lead to the fulfillment of their responsibilities within the strategic process.
Learn more about The RBL Group’s proven methodologies to implement strategic processes throughout an organization.