The Work of Leaders: Why Building Alignment is One of the Most Important Things You Can Do

on March 15, 2013
Resources Managing Change

“The most empowering condition of all is when the entire organization is aligned with its mission, and people’s passions and purpose are in synch with each other.”

– Bill George, Professor of Management Practice at Harvard
Business School and former CEO of Medtronic

When it comes to leadership, building alignment is key to getting people on board with your ideas. Alignment conserves time and energy by making sure everyone knows what they’re supposed to be doing and why. It’s about getting both emotional and rational buy-in to your vision. Alignment also provides a forum for questions and concerns, giving everyone an opportunity to feel a sense of ownership in the vision. And alignment unites and excites people around a vision.

Effective leaders understand that alignment is not something to check off a to-do list. Alignment is a dynamic, ongoing process that requires continual monitoring and realigning as conditions and needs change. Yet, research shows that more than half of leaders report little or no training or guidance in the practice of creating alignment. In fact, only 47% report having a clear understanding of what “building alignment” even means in the context of leadership.

In The Work of Leaders: How Vision, Alignment, and Execution Will Change the Way You Lead, co-author Julie Straw reveals three key things to building alignment with your followers: communicating with clarity, creating dialogue with your followers, and inspiring your team.

Alignment: Clarity

As the leader, you were probably involved in the decision-making process, sitting through all sorts of meetings and conversations during which ideas were shared. You know the history that led to the decision being made the way it was. But what about everyone else?

Straw’s research suggests that leaders often overlook communicating what is obvious and intuitive to them, but can seem like a mystery to followers. Providing clarity involves a delicate balance between keeping it simple and addressing real-world complexities. Leaders who master this tricky communication are good at explaining their rationale, and structuring messages so they are clearly understood.

Explaining the rationale behind the vision means providing explanations. By explaining your rationale, your team will understand where they are going, why they are going there, and what the expectations are.

Effective leaders also make sure they are structuring their messages so people can easily understand them, and so they can be repeated and shared with others. You can communicate with clarity by using headlines. Keep the headlines short and simple, and then add your talking points so people can remember the two or three things you want them to take away.

Alignment: Dialogue

When it comes to building alignment around your vision, dialogue plays a key role. Through dialogue, a leader establishes a two-way conversation. By engaging the group and making others part of the conversation, you open the door to shared ownership and accountability. In other words, you gain buy-in and begin to build engagement.

Dialogue is an art, but it’s also a skill that can be developed by practicing two key behaviors: exchanging perspectives and being receptive.

When people feel understood, they can open up more about what’s really bothering them. If you can get them talking, and if you listen to what they are saying, you’ll be able to address issues, answer questions, and share insights. It’s all about exchanging perspectives.

The other “best-practice behavior” used by leaders to create dialogue is being receptive. Being receptive is about the vibe you are sending out during the conversation. Both consciously and unconsciously, people sense whether you are receptive and approachable. Try to get people to open up by saying “Tell me more about that” to keep the conversation going.  Set the stage for an honest dialogue and make sure people have the opportunity to say what they want to say.

Alignment: Inspiration

When it comes to getting people on board, a leader has to inspire others. It’s the leader’s job to breathe life into the vision so people are emotionally committed. When we break inspiration down to its essence, we’re talking about bringing positive energy to your group and your goals. In the leadership model of Vision, Alignment and Execution, there are two components that help with this: being expressive (the energy), and being encouraging (the positivity).

A naturally expressive leader may communicate her passion spontaneously. A high-energy leader may create an event that gets people jazzed. But even the most reserved leader can find a way to express and instill genuine feeling, without being loud. Being expressive isn’t grandstanding, it’s believing in the vision and helping peoples see the real, deeper meaning behind their tasks.

In addition to being expressive, leaders who excel at inspiration are also encouraging. Noted research psychologist John Gottman is able to predict, with over 90% accuracy, the success of a couple’s marriage by watching a three-minute video clip of spouses talking to each other. What’s he watching for? Healthy couples in his research have a five to one ratio of positive exchanges to negative exchanges.

So what does this have to do with leadership? Well, leadership is also about relationships, and a lot of the same emotional mechanisms are at play when you’re trying to get people aligned. So it’s worth asking yourself: How often do you deliver five positive messages to every negative? People need encouragement, and it must be ongoing.

Alignment is a critical component of getting people on board, and without alignment, leaders won’t have the entire team pulling in the same direction, focusing on the same desired outcomes. It’s worth taking the time to think about how you’re getting alignment, so everyone is in synch.

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