The title of this article taken from the Old Testament of the Bible probably reflects the feelings of most individuals that are given the responsibility of developing a company’s strategy. The larger and more mature the organization, the more likely is it that this feeling of frustration will occur. Get used to it. It may be a deep-seated feeling but one that you must push aside to be successful.
The feeling that no one is listening or you are powerless has its root cause in the common approach to treat strategy as a separate activity that is often divorced from the day-to-day operations of the company. A number of other articles in the section, especially “It’s a Continuum,” “Equal but Not Separate,” and “The Resource Battle” discuss this issue. This article takes a personal approach to the problem. Let’s set the stage.
Based on your past performance as a line manager within the company, you have been promoted and placed in charge of developing the company’s long-term strategy. Your proven track record of performance and your overall competence are well known throughout the organization. Virtually everyone wished you well and expressed confidence in the outstanding job they know you will do. You know your new role will be challenging but you are confident and maybe a little arrogant, but with the support of the entire organization, you know you can be successful and lead the company to new heights.
In your first several weeks, colleagues are anxious to work with you, share their thoughts about what should be done, and offer their complete support. You begin to synthesize all of the useful internal data that others have shared with you. You then begin to look outside at market and competitive activities and start to develop a clearer overall, more objective view of today’s business environment and the likely trends, threats, and opportunities that the future holds. This is where your trouble begins. It is minor, almost innocent at first. You start making comments to your close friends that are in the various business units that have direct P/L responsibility. Some of your initial conclusions may not support their views of their reality. Essentially, you begin pointing out that the wheels on the apple cart are beginning to turn a little wobbly and the company should examine them a little more closely. As of a sudden, some individuals begin to think of you as a threat to their business unit and not the ally to help protect them.
Instead of the cooperation that you have enjoyed until this point, some subtle changes begin to occur. Instead of the senior business managers attending your meetings, they send someone else who is only empowered to take notes and not make decisions. The business metrics that you requested seem to be delayed or not available until later. Win/loss reports and other competitive information seems not to be available to you. None of these events are overly obvious and all can be easily explained or dismissed. However, each of these events can turn into data points that project a downward spiral in your ability to be effective. People don’t say no to you; they just don’t say yes. Or they finally meet your requests, weeks or months later with stale data. Another telltale sign is that you are inadvertently not invited to attend meetings and discussions regarding operational issues or financial uncertainties about the business unit. You are not copied on emails that could impact your work. When individuals feel seriously threatened by your role, they may intentionally hide projects that have a direct bearing on your responsibilities.
Approaching your boss or their bosses or the one boss that all of you report to is a delicate situation. You know the old axiom to never approach your boss with a problem without having a viable set of recommendations in hand that they can implement. Demanding that others cooperate with you should not be one of your top 1,000 recommendations! Calling the question may put your boss in a difficult position. They know that developing and implementing the correct long-term strategy is absolutely essential to ensuring the long-term survival of the company. On the other hand, a perfect long-term strategy only is important if the company survives long enough to reach that point. More importantly, your boss clearly understands that he won’t survive if his business unit managers do not deliver the short-term results that incrementally add up to long-term success. Your boss simply cannot direct his business units to focus on your needs and not run their businesses. Your solution to have them do both is a convenient but simplistic answer that will quickly be ignored.
Your best and probably only viable approach is to share this dilemma with your boss. He/she probably already is aware of it, but is savvy enough not to bring the issue up with you because of the lack of an obvious acceptable solution that will please all parties and result in the consistent meeting of short-term and long-term goals. There are, however, a few incremental steps that can be taken to move the entire organization along in such a way that individuals do not feel threatened.
The first step is to make sure that each person’s metrics and goals, and certainly their bonuses, are totally aligned with the overall company goals. Instead, most organizations align a business unit’s goals with their business unit’s short-term performance. Individuals always find a way to become masters of their measurement system. As Lou Gerstner, the former Chairman and CEO of IBM once said, “You get what you inspect not what you expect.” This is not an indictment on individuals; it is simply a matter of fact. People respond to what you tell them is important.
The second step is to divide long-term strategies into small incremental steps that are less threatening and easier to grasp, so business line managers can begin to develop tactical plans that they can implement within their existing organization that do not seem as threatening to their operation.
The third step is to be open and remember the song lyric by Harry Chapin, “Empty spaces are made for filling.” In today’s fast moving, highly volatile environment, job security is on virtually everyone’s mind. Often people expect the worst. Fill the voids and show individuals how the longer-term plans can be beneficial to them personally.
The fourth step that needs to followed continuously is to listen to others. The article in this series, “There Are Only Two Kinds of People,” explains that if you tell people something, you create a critic, but if you ask people for their opinion you are likely to create a creator. You do not necessarily have to do what they suggest. The mere act of asking shows that you care and value their opinion.
The four steps listed above will not necessarily guarantee your success and eliminate all of your frustration. Remember, you cannot control others; you can only control how you react to them. Take actions that help them decide to work with you. Make your strategies their strategies through their involvement, showing them how it is in their best interest. You may still feel that you are in the wilderness, but you will not be alone.