Inspiring And Enabling People
To Make A Difference
Many good operational managers are paralysed by the apparent complexity of strategic change. This paralysis, coupled with the everyday pressures of keeping the business running, means that organisations have skipped this crucial activity in favour of thrusting leadership and rigorous management. However, the problem with this approach is that organisations are pursuing incremental efficiency gains in preference to the more radical and profitable step change offered by effective strategic implementation.
So, how do the best operational managers make the transition between the two roles of manager and leader? The answer is that they adopt new ways of thinking in advance of new ways of working. In this article we will explore four key skills that, if mastered, can help you make those first tentative steps towards the Boardroom.
The effective strategic executive displays four foundational skills:
– Dual Focus
– Involving Communication
– Professional Effectiveness
The most common complaint you will hear from Board members as they review the next generation of talent in their organisation is “they just don’t think strategically”. So, how do you develop the ability to raise your head up and consider the strategic landscape?
One quick routine to boost your strategic capability is to force yourself to answer “5W” questions whenever you are faced with a new issue, initiative or proposal. Who, When, Where, Why and What? It is also critical to think beyond your particular area of responsibility during your initial consideration of the questions and force yourself to think more broadly. So, let’s say you are the UK Marketing Manager for New Products and you have been asked to review a proposal for an extension to your core range of products – this is how you might tackle the process:
Who? Particularly, Who Else will be interested in reviewing and discussing this issue?
When? Is this something we need to consider now? When would be a better time, given the other projects on the horizon?
Where? This is a particularly useful question if you work for a multi-national organisation. It forces you to consider options beyond your local geography.
Why? Arguably the most important of the five questions. Seeking clarity on this at an early stage will save the organisation time, money and effort. Seek input from the groups identified when you asked “Who Else?”
What? Make no assumptions. Err on the side of caution initially but be clear where your judgements are not based on actual experience. Also asking What If? will open minds to endless possibilities and expose weak thinking.
Whenever we ask our clients to recall why previous change projects may have failed, more than 90% cite poor communication as the main cause. However, further analysis reveals that most change projects have been accompanied by a communication plan, so what is going wrong? Again the answer lies in the propensity for people to look inward instead of out when it comes to developing their plans. A typical phrase you will hear is; “I know I would like to know this, so let’s make sure it’s a key part of the communication.”
The key is to involve all groups affected in the change as soon as possible. Usually, that should be after the goal has been set. On he face of it, this may seem at odds with the general philosophy but in reality, it is very difficult to effect substantial change by committee and very few people have either the enthusiasm or capacity to define a change that will impact them directly. Nevertheless, once the goal has been set, identify your key change agents and seek guidance from all relevant stakeholders immediately. Involvement reduces the need for broadcasting and engenders greater levels of trust in the leadership as well as belief in a positive outcome.
You will be familiar with the phrase “Stay close to your allies and even closer to your enemies”. In the context of managing strategic change, think of anyone who has something to lose in the process as your “enemy” and seek out ways of collaborating with them to achieve mutually acceptable outcomes. This is not compromise where both parties have to give up something, this is about finding ways for both parties to win. Treat your “enemy” with respect. Anticipate their likely responses to your strategy and create your pre-emptive plans to either reduce the impact of their reactions or eliminate it all together. Ignoring key stakeholders because they may not like what you have to tell them will not help. Get them on-board as quick as possible and you will achieve better, more sustainable results.
Thus, the correct thinking pattern is not “What will I need to give up to make this acceptable?” but “How can we change the process/inputs/resources to achieve the same or better result?” With the right strategic glasses on, your enemy can become your window of opportunity and potentially a long-term ally.
Look around your organisation, particularly at Board level, and ask yourself, “Who is the best professional?” Then ask yourself “Why?” Write down a list of all the attributes that contribute to your assessment of this individual and then rate yourself out of ten (where the other person is a ten) on each attribute. Can you spot any areas that need your focus? As we remind people in our workshops, if efficiency is doing things right and effectiveness is doing the right things then the professional does the right things right. Select one item from your list of attributes and start to model the behaviour you would like to emulate. Don’t be afraid to copy key phrases or mannerisms that your target uses (as long as they are positive) because this will give you access to some of the unconscious thoughts and feelings this person accesses to exhibit competence. Overall, you are looking to acquire the mindset of the professional you have chosen to model.
Balance this approach with a more ego-centric exercise, focused on what you want out of life and what you are prepared to give. Statistics show that the number one reason senior executives leave their employer is for lifestyle reasons. However, being clear on what you want from your career, need not result in leaving your current employer. Think collaboration. How can you collaborate with your organisation to devise a role or a working framework that meets your needs whilst making a valued contribution to the organisational strategy?
As I mentioned earlier, these are just foundational skills. However, start acquiring a level of conscious competence in these areas and you will see a significant improvement in the way you are perceived by your colleagues.