The Nuance of Strategy

By Trever Cartwright

Every year at about this time, many executives scratch their heads and wonder, “Is the year really half over—already?”

You may be doing your version of the same with the added realization that now is an excellent time to step back and take stock of how your company’s year-to-date performance is progressing. For some leaders, a structured mid-year assessment will reveal a favorable, even reassuring picture. If you are in your category, your organization may be right on track with all objectives being met, employees engaged and energized and customers singing your praises. For others a mid-year review may present a few challenges. Year-to-date progress on strategic or organizational change initiatives may be slightly or even significantly off, in which case it’s clear that the situation needs to be carefully and accurately understood and decisive action needs to be taken.

Regardless of what you discover in your own mid-year assessment process, the good news is you still have time to do what it takes to end the year on target. Ensuring a strong year end may mean reinforcing what you’re already doing or course-correcting in specific areas in order to strengthen forward momentum and avoid getting stuck in a pattern of lackluster organizational performance. In either case, it’s important to understand what’s working and what’s not.

As you take time to assess your organization’s year-to-date performance, consider the following key points:

1. Make the assessment of results inclusive.

Oftentimes, strategic planning is done in an exclusive manner, behind closed doors with only the most senior leaders in attendance. Then, with the best of intentions, these same leaders emerge from their star chamber to announce the strategic plan to the organization. Months later, frustration at the top begins to surface, particularly if company performance is weak. “Why aren’t people on board with our strategic direction?” is a common question leaders ask. Meanwhile, many employees may be asking a very different question: “Why are you making your strategic direction my problem?” It’s an all too common scenario.

Going Forward: Break this pattern. Make strategic planning, as well as the assessment of strategic results, as inclusive as possible. Include a cross-section of employees in both processes. Favorable results are a byproduct of fully engaged employees who feel like they are contributors. Over the next few weeks, consider reintroducing your strategic plan to your employees with the goal of truly engaging them in what the plan means not only to your company as a whole, but to employees personally. By taking steps to ensure your employees have ownership of your strategic direction, you will increase the likelihood of consistent, quality execution and, ultimately, the results you’re after.

2. Whether you’re on track or off course, take a look at how engaged your leadership team is in delivering the results you’re seeing.

Leaders often drive hard, and then drive off. It’s an easy pattern to fall into. Once the strategic plan and taking steps to ensure their people understand what was rolled out and are actually equipped to meet the requirements of the plan.

Going Forward: Drive hard—just do it with your people rather than without them. Be willing to do the heavy-lifting alongside them. Strategic planning and the organizational change that typically follows as part of implementing your plan needs to be an ongoing, collaborative process that has fully engaged leadership and employees working as a cohesive, collaborative team. When employees see their leaders working the plan and actively embracing change, then employees are far more likely to take ownership of the plan and more willingly engage needed change. When strategic or organizational change initiatives fail and organizations get stuck, the number one reason is that leaders aren’t modeling the way and employees feel lost and unsupported. Nothing good comes from this common double standard.

3. Make sure you’re getting the whole story.

When results are off, executive leadership understandably becomes anxious. The easiest choice is to abandon the strategy or the particular change initiative that doesn’t seem to be sticking and substitute it for something else that might work better. Where organizational performance is concerned, there is always a nuanced story that needs to be exactly understood. Keep in mind that a “start-then-stop” pattern within your organization produces cynicism among employees. It’s why employees are likely to whisper during the all-hands meeting, “Flavor of the month—let’s see how long this lasts.” And it’s how “wait-and-see” organizational cultures are born.

Going Forward: Take time to accurately diagnose all factors that may be negatively impacting results. In fact, your strategy may be exactly right. However, the approach you’re taking to engage employees may need to be redirected. For example your rewards and recognition system may not be commensurate with the boldness of your initiatives or perhaps your employees currently lack the skills and competencies they need in order to perform at even higher levels.
Think of your mid-year assessment as an opportunity to get clear, get focused and get moving. Becoming expert at quickly and accurately diagnosing the root cause of performance or under-performance is critical to any organization’s success. Keep in mind that, fundamentally your employees want to excel. They want to work alongside their leaders, be part of a winning strategy and know that the work they do is not only being recognized fairly, but that it’s making a meaningful difference.

If you’re experiencing a temporary slump in your organization’s performance, you can break out of it by conducting a deliberate assessment of what’s going on. The goal is to take the right action that either supports continued performance or accurately addresses under performance.

It’s far more important to assess and then understand the truth of the situation rather than reacting based on assumption, fear or frustration. While it’s possible your strategic path needs to be adjusted, it’s equally possible that a few specific changes in the way you’re engaging your employees are all that’s needed to put performance back on track.