Like a ship’s navigation system in a storm, a clear strategy is the only way companies can stay on a successful course in today’s world of constant change.
Yet the hardest part is making the changes needed for the strategy to work. As a chief strategy officer in a time of unprecedented change and growth, I see my role as helping inspire the actions that will drive those changes.
Since companies today are struggling to align with a central strategy, I’ll share the steps I’m taking to be a catalyst for change at SYKES.
Build trust before asking tough questions.
One of the advantages of the strategy role is objectivity. In my case, I’m not aligned with any one department or function, and I don’t have to achieve a specific revenue number or target. This allows me to bring an open mind, and build relationships and trust with other organizational leaders because I don’t have any hidden agendas.
I also don’t come in with my own ideas and talk about what we can do or change. I have to build trust first, because to get anything done in an organization, there has to be trust. Otherwise, I’d fail pretty fast right out of the gate.
I see this step as earning the right. I’ve got to earn trust before I can ask the tough questions and ultimately make recommendations about how we’re running a part of the business. This independent role allows me to be a bit of the agitator at times, to really probe enough to learn why there may be a barrier or why we’re not executing on an objective today.
I’ve got to be the one who brings up the elephant in the room, even though it will be uncomfortable. I personally believe in transparency and putting it all out there — let’s work through it. But fundamentally, we work the issues hard, not the people; we’re going after problems, not individuals. I can help get us focused on what’s good for the company overall and find what it will take to succeed as an organization. At times, that means we have to tackle tough issues and put difficult conversations on the table; but when I’ve established my objectivity and built trust, I can push in a way that frees people to come forward and have a good dialogue.
Invite collaboration for strategy co-creation.
The old model for creating strategy tended to be a top-of-the-mountain approach. CEOs and boards would conduct the planning process behind closed doors and then bring it down to the rest of the organization. That tradition isn’t relevant anymore. The environment is too dynamic. The workforce has changed and expectations are different, so we need a more collaborative approach to creating strategy. Now, it’s about involving thought leaders across the company who have great ideas and can influence how we’re thinking about executing our vision. Once the CEO sets the vision, developing strategies can be highly collaborative. It has to involve people at all levels of the company — everyone needs a voice in how we do this. This doesn’t mean we act on every single suggestion, but if everyone has a voice and some input into the process, we’re going to have much higher buy-in.
We also need to realize that once strategies are designed, they can’t be rigid. Strategies need to be flexible enough to adjust and course-correct as we get feedback both internally and from the market.
Eliminate busywork and silos.
According to Michael Porter, who’s regarded as the founder of the field of modern strategy, the essence of strategy is choosing what not to do.
So, what better place to start applying this principle than with busywork? Sure we’re all busy, but are we doing the work that really matters?
It’s not that people don’t want to do good work, it’s that the work they’re doing isn’t the right work. Sometimes there’s a high level of activity, but a lot of it is just noise. It’s not work that’s going to help the company achieve its objectives and move toward where it needs to go. We must eliminate busywork so there’s time to do the work that matters.
A CSO can get involved and help departments align on strategic goals, and help people understand what matters and what doesn’t. We can create a framework that allows those departments to say, “Hey, we’re not going to do that anymore. We’re not going to execute on this initiative or this project because it doesn’t align with where we’re taking the company.” This allows us to apply our resources more efficiently and effectively to the things that matter, and ultimately produce the outcomes we want.
In the same way, a CSO can start to bridge the divide between independently operating departments by helping them align with the strategy and vision we’re trying to achieve. Breaking down silos in organizations isn’t easy, but when departments are aligned on the same goals you start to find opportunities for collaboration. We want to avoid wasting resources on competing objectives and agendas.
Explain the why.
In a recent strategy survey of more than 500 senior executives, 80 percent of the CEOs said their overall strategy was not well-understood, even within their own company.
Companies can be very good at the “what” and the “how,” but not so great about explaining the “why.” But as Simon Sinek, author of “Start With Why” writes: “It’s those who start with why who have the ability to inspire those around them.”
I’ve always found that if people really understand why they’re being asked to do something, most will get on board and help execute. I need to help people step back, look at what they’re doing from a higher altitude and determine if it’s the best way going forward. A particular business model or process may have brought great success for years or it may just be “the way we’ve always done it.” But we have to adopt a more agile model that lets us drive the right change and the right decision-making.
So being a catalyst for change means getting out in the organization — from the C-suite to the frontlines — and taking the time to educate people on why it matters. They need to know why their work makes a difference to the company’s success, as well as how that success will help their own careers.
Ignite energy to drive execution.
In science, a catalyst makes a chemical reaction go faster. In business, a strategy leader needs to function similarly; but when a strategy requires changing the way people work, they’re going to run up against some significant roadblocks.
Clear, effective communication is critical to driving strategy execution through those walls of resistance. We can’t just assume that people will “get it.” For me, it starts with aligning our leaders around what we’re trying to achieve and how. It’s about creating strategy maps that make everything we do relevant — down to each department and individual employee. Strategy maps show how the vision and mission flow into strategic imperatives that break down into goals at the department level, and also show the work that matters for that area. This illustrates a path of alignment to the strategy, vision and mission. Then we can set goals and objectives for each individual person.
We need to make sure everyone understands what we expect, what we’re trying to achieve and most importantly, that we’re creating something greater than the work itself that they can be a part of. This is how we translate strategy into work that matters.
However, a strategy map is just a tool, something that employees can print out and post on their desks to remind them of their goals and objectives and how that connects to the bigger picture. To really drive change and execution, we need excitement. Our people need to have an emotional connection to what we’re talking about. Multimedia can help make that happen through visual representation and music that creates a high level of emotional awareness, and then we build from that. We need more than PowerPoint presentations to help people replace their uncertainty with excitement.
Once we’ve generated the excitement, we need to create measures that matter and that people can relate to — mechanisms that allow us to evaluate our performance and identify where to make adjustments.
Being a catalyst for change means driving successful execution, which depends on rapid and effective decision-making — now more than ever. With a strategic structure in place, everyone can focus on what matters and speed up decision-making to respond to changes while staying on course for success.