Are Your Leaders Too Busy “Being Strategic” to Get Stuff Done?

Jan 31, 2018

Are Your Leaders Too Busy “Being Strategic” to Get Stuff Done?

As business leaders, we love to talk about the Next Big Thing:

  • The new business model that is going to disrupt the industry.
  • The new technology that will radically transform the business.
  • The pivot to new markets that will redefine the company.

The more time we spend time talking about all these big things, the more we reach for the big levers of organizational change:

  • Acquisitions to bring in critical new capabilities.
  • Reorganizations to bust silos and enable collaboration.
  • Culture initiatives to socialize the new strategy.

Most of the time they don’t work. The new acquisition never really gets integrated; technology trends have a short half-life; new markets are tougher to penetrate in the real world than they are on paper. A couple years down the road and it’s time for the next big pivot, the I re-org, the next culture change.

Does that mean the strategy was bad? Probably not. The fact is, somewhere there’s a competitor having success with the same business model you tried, the same type of org structure, etc. That’s no wonder, because there are only so many basic strategies and org structures to go around. Your senior team (and their external consultants) didn’t just pull this stuff out of the air. They based it on best practices from industry and popular theories from academia. It still didn’t work.

The much more likely answer is that there were thorny problems with processes, capabilities, resources and priorities – problems that never got worked out, even though lots of people knew about them. The strategy may have been fine, but the organization didn’t do all the things necessary to execute it. Following through on big changes is difficult because it requires tackling tough problems and challenging people’s thinking. That’s a lot of work and it isn’t glamorous. In fact, people have developed defensive routines to knock you around in the process. At a certain point, it’s a lot more comfortable to switch back to strategy mode.

Lots of leadership training frankly hasn’t helped:

  • The over-focus on “being strategic” doesn’t give enough airtime to the real day-to-day challenges of leadership – people don’t know how to handle them.
  • Our natural attraction to complex and novel insights leads us to ignore things that are timeless, simple and truly useful – just because we know what the basics are, doesn’t mean we do them well.
  • The desire to be inspirational and aspirational causes leaders to shy away from talking about the challenges and imperfections of the organization as it is – it’s tough to fix problems if we can’t talk about them.

I get it. I like to be inspired. I love shiny new ideas too. I’m even kind of a nerd for research on learning and strategy. But I’ve also worked in the leadership development space for a long time and with a bunch of very well-known companies. At some point my friends in those organizations end up sharing concerns that go something like this:

  • “You know, Sean, this strategy stuff is all great, but half the leadership team isn’t really on board with it and nobody is talking about that.”

– or –

  • “All this stuff in our competency model is fine, but it would be so great if our managers could just give feedback without being a jerk and do a decent performance review.”

– or –

  • “It’s just so hard to get things done around here. For every decision there are 20 people who want to have their say and nothing seems to get resolved.”

It’s time to swing the focus of leadership development back to fundamental things that help people get stuff done:

Talking about Real Issues

Leadership development needs to equip people with the tools to raise and address the real issues they are facing. Of course, that includes strategy and all the exciting opportunities laid out before us. But it also includes the challenges, the problems, and the hard choices that have to be made in order to reach our goals. Development experiences cannot only be a place to help leaders build those skills, but they also need to be venues to driving the conversations that need to happen in the business.

Getting at Mindset

It’s not enough to just talk about action. Surface agreement about what to do isn’t that hard to obtain. But if we don’t uncover the thinking behind people’s actions, we won’t get lasting change. Leaders need to get a window into the thinking that unconsciously drives their own habits, so they can make sustainable change. They also need to get better at uncovering the mindsets of others that make the status quo so sticky.

Reaching Critical Mass

Talking about real problems in the business and challenging entrenched mindsets is tough work. None of us can go it alone. We’ll either get exhausted or the organizational immune system will reject us – probably both. We need reinforcement from leaders and peers. We need a common language and shared experiences to get people on the same page.

In an ideal world, we’d drive these skills across every level of the organization quickly. However, that’s not realistic for companies of significant scale. What we can do is ensure critical mass within specific populations that drive important work. That way those leaders get the network effects and peer support they need while their success creates a model for the rest of the business.

-Sean Kennedy, SVP Learning Strategy, Cambridge Leadership Group