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senior leaders need to change too

In most organizations, senior teams spend a great deal of time debating and agreeing on the logic behind the enterprise strategy for the future. The business case, the size of the prize, and the primary strategic initiatives typically create the logic train for the strategy deck that everyone on the team agrees to with a thumbs-up or a verbal “I’m in.”

Typically, this skin-deep alignment is a 30,000-foot agreement in principle on what the leaders would like the business to address and become in the years ahead. But this bird’s-eye view does very little to uncover the adversity, conflict, needed decisions, and the uncertainty associated with the strategic changes being proposed at all levels of the business. Furthermore, once the enterprise strategy is created, the senior leaders consider their jobs complete and see it as the responsibility of the rest of the organization to make the emotional and behavioral changes necessary to unlock the value behind the strategy.

Strategy Execution Must Start at the Top

The typical quote we hear from senior leaders to the organization is, “The strategy is done and now it’s your turn to bring it to life.” This mindset results in failure because execution is the most critical step, and the plan lacks the alignment and content required for strategy activation. And it lacks the necessary buy-in from everyone in the organization.

All too often, the senior team fails to see that their own collective and individual behaviors, practices, and routines are the pace car for communicating, executing, and implementing the desired strategic changes in the business. Strategy without execution is meaningless, and execution without constant senior team engagement and change leadership is impossible. In fact, research shows that 60% to 90% of all strategies fail to be executed as desired or fail to deliver the intended benefits.

In our experience, half of senior team leaders do not ascend to the level of advocacy and proactivity necessary to effectively lead the strategy they co-authored. And their lack of involvement in the execution is noticeable, because when we ask leaders throughout an organization what they think about their new strategy, they almost always respond, “The strategy is not the problem; it is our fundamental disbelief that our senior leaders will change their behaviors to bring it to life.”

What We Find

Companies create strategies so they can continue to grow. However, so many organizations stumble. Why? The failure of most organizational strategies can be traced to five key points:

  • Members of the leadership team don’t share a common mental model.
  • Leaders don’t connect strategy activation to their leadership behaviors.
  • Most strategy activation plans lack a multi-year process and don’t rigorously address the existing barriers.
  • Leaders aren’t prioritizing their primary role of owning the whole before their own functions and therefore are unable to remain focused on alignment and activation.
  • Next-level leaders aren’t being engaged to act as change leaders.

What Needs to Occur 

If an organization wants to embark on transformative change, that organization needs to have a high-performance senior leadership team that begins operating with a set of new norms. The team needs to create new underlying beliefs and principles on how they will run and grow the business. This team needs to view the change as their responsibility. The team needs to be ready for a constant battle to achieve clarity, alignment, and accountability. And they must be honest and truthful about where the company is, the barriers to change, and what they want to build together.

They also need new “rules of the road” on how their future operating model works. They need to identify potential adversity or “fight card issues” – the issues that are the “elephants in the room” that need to be continually addressed because they are ripe with conflict, controversy, and disruption. Finally, the team must create a communication and listening process with the next level of leaders. Because while strategy starts with the senior leaders, the entire organization needs to be involved, too.

Change is difficult, and we often ask others to change before we are willing to change ourselves. Senior executives aren’t immune to this. They often chart a course for strategic change without considering how they need to change and grow. At the executive level, these capability shifts are tied to observable behaviors – how leaders spend their time or what they reward. Because employees often model their leaders’ behaviors, leadership behaviors must change first. Winning organizations clearly define and track the behavioral shifts required by leaders if the organization is to achieve its desired future state.

This is part one of a two-part blog series. Part two focuses on next-level leaders and frontline team members and offers actionable tips on how to prepare and engage them in organizational change initiatives.

March 3, 2021


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