The start of fall marks many firsts, from changing foliage and frost on the grass, to a return to school and the opening snap of the college football season. And, for many organizations, the start of fall also signals the pivot to begin thinking about the following year: to consider the strategic goals that will drive business tactics for the new year; and to align the budget to meet these objectives. Given current circumstances, business’ strategic planning processes have never been more important.
For leaders, spending appropriate time considering critical business priorities is the most important job you have. Without evaluating the focus of your business and organizing your employees toward the achievement of those goals, you’re essentially snapping the ball without a play called and hoping your players will luck into a miracle. That’s not a winning game plan.
In this article, I would like to explore the responsibility of annual business strategy planning in more detail. This will include the generation and alignment of strategy as well as the creation of an effective data loop, incorporating employee feedback on strategy implementation.
Your Job as a Senior Leader: Define Business Strategy
For senior leaders, developing and aligning strategy is a fundamental responsibility. That responsibility is an outgrowth of their span of control within the organization: the vantage point they hold by working cross functionally. While other levels of leadership in the organization are tied to department or division, senior leaders share a view that includes the entirety of the organization. Failure to think cross-functionally, or to have that expansive view, indicates a serious issue at the functional leader level. If senior leaders don’t have clear visibility into the totality of the business, from which they create organizational strategy, then strategy will either be seriously myopic or, worse yet, non-existent.
To translate this into simpler terms, senior leaders hold a position that allows them to consider the totality of the business, not simply the success or failure of a particular team. This vantage point allows them to craft business strategy that will be both appropriate and significant for the whole company. Failure to tackle strategy, or, by extension, prioritization of strategic objectives, is essentially a failure of their leadership. That’s your job as the head coach. You don’t have your defensive coordinator creating your offensive strategy, or visa versa.
This is not to diminish the difficulty or complexity of creating that business strategy: gathering intelligence from both inside and outside the organization; synthesizing the feedback from employees and their leaders; anticipating market themes; and predicting political and economic currents that will impact your business. All of these efforts are extraordinarily challenging under the best of conditions. The COVID pandemic has simply acerbated those challenges, requiring added agility of both thought and response to a constant shifting of variables.
Strategy vs. Feedback: Feedback Wins!
Given the current situation, gathering feedback from your employees can be particularly helpful right now. Not only do you gain a more expansive vantage point about your business—what is, and what is not, working from the employee point of view—but you can also gather critical insight into potential challenges or issues with strategic implementation. If your employee base is struggling to understand company goals, stressed by company policies that seem misaligned to their current reality (i.e., childcare, schooling or health-related stressors), or simply burned out from the past seventeen months, this information needs to inform business strategic planning. You may create the world’s greatest set of strategic goals, but if your employees are incapable or unwilling to execute these goals, your business will stand at risk.
Running an employee engagement survey, or simplified pulse survey, can help to gather important information about employee readiness for the next year. There are a number of formal instruments available for this task, including a recent addition from the Predictive Index that streamlines administration and creates clear “after action” steps responsive to the gaps or challenges uncovered through the survey data. But, even creating an easy survey yourselves, using commonly available administration tools, allows you to outline questions most significant and relevant to your business needs and gather feedback from your employee base. This feedback can help ensure that goals and capabilities align.
Further, senior leaders can create improved employee morale and better strategy connections when they host “town hall” meetings with their employees. This provides an opportunity for direct feedback and demonstrates both an openness and willingness to engage in thoughtful dialogue with those tasked to carry out strategic goals. To return to our football analogy, a stirring speech from the coach at halftime can often make the difference in the second half, adjusting a strategy that is not working and inspiring players to push beyond their assumed limitations.
The Missing Piece: Connecting Employees to Strategy
The last part of this process, after committing to strategy and gathering appropriate feedback, is to ensure that all the “players” are clear on the game plan. Strategic alignment is every bit as important as strategy itself. And this alignment process is a further responsibility of the organization’s leaders. The translation of business strategy into the tactics of business operation happen through company leaders.
Starting with senior leaders, business strategy must be clearly communicated to mid-level management—those responsible for leading the organization’s front-line leaders. Mid-level leaders, therefore, have one of the most difficult roles in the company: they must have clarity on the strategic objectives of the organization and then be capable of translating this understanding into the day-to-day tactics that the front-line leaders will carry out. This is literally the point at which “theory meets practice”—where goals become actual work-a-day effort. When this fails to happen, your business is effectively no better off than if you had no strategy at all.
A cascade of communication needs to occur, starting from the top and working down through the leaders of the organization. And, if leaders are performing their function, which includes regular meetings with their direct reports and teams, this communication should be readily accommodated. These meetings provide the venue for leaders to clarify company strategy, translate that strategy into the business tactics of their respective teams, and ensure correct prioritization and execution of those tactics. This is how a well-informed business strategy becomes a truly operational plan.
Current circumstances make it imperative that you think critically about your future business strategy. Senior leaders must take this responsibility seriously: this is your most critical job. Soliciting feedback from the organization and ensuring the alignment of that strategy with the capabilities of your employees is an important part of that process. Lastly, ensuring that strategy is well understood by the organization—that you have created clarity and appropriate prioritization of goals—is essential to their execution. Translating concept into action is the last step, but one that often goes overlooked or is woefully underserved. Only when all three of these aspects are executed and aligned can an organization be assured that their business is on stable ground. The current environment has made business challenging enough; don’t compound that by failing to plan, ignoring feedback from your business; and ensuring the plan is understood and executable by your team.