“Please Mr CEO, sir, can you find just a few brief moments in your busy schedule for a group of us humble and undeserving employees to discuss our strategic initiative to totally transform the company?”
No matter what the topic or function, the one consistent element of every successful significant project or initiative is executive sponsorship. I’ve seen it at every business conference of every stripe I’ve ever attended, whether that be finance, IT and data management, operations, analytics, marketing, risk or corporate culture and HR. Over the course of the typical two-day conference you will see and hear at least half a dozen case studies all of which will conclude with a ‘Lessons Learned’ summary slide. And on each and every one of them will be highlighted the absolute need for executive buy-in and leadership.
There are several variations on this theme. While there are never case studies about abject failures, there are the projects that just never got off the ground until the CEO got involved. Or the project that failed the first time for lack of executive sponsorship. And occasionally you’ll hear from the seasoned mid-manager who’s been through this four or five times in his/her career, and can relate past failures at prior companies as the reason they sought new employment where senior leadership would be more forthcoming. Their presentations will all make it patently clear that if you don’t get executive sponsorship you might as well just put the project on ice right then and there.
However, it pains me to observe that in most cases obtaining this oh-so-essential executive level commitment seems to be like pulling teeth. The case study stories often come across as a battle between the competent and well-meaning employees against the distant, preoccupied, and too-busy-to-care senior executives.
How did we get to this point, where this lack of executive engagement has gained the appearance of standard practice?
I will conjecture that there are four likely causes or approaches to this disconnect.
The first is the age-old issue that the top level strategy is just not adequately communicated, but remains instead a nearly top-secret purview of the executive board. The company’s employees simply do not know, or do not understand, the sanctioned corporate strategy, and as nature abhors a vacuum, they fill that misunderstanding with their own vision. I mentioned Joel Barker in a previous post ("Strategy is a Hypothesis"), and his suggestion to canvas your employees as to what THEY think the corporate strategy is. You will undoubtedly be surprised and amazed at what you find. You will uncover a myriad of congruent, conflicting or overlapping ideas as to what the official corporate strategy might be.
The second possible cause is that there is no execution attached to the strategy, or no understood, actionable and executable steps associated with it. It's just a collection of feel-good mission and vision statements associated with high-level goals and objectives. The organization is forced to fill in the gaps with what goals, projects and initiatives they think appropriate. They hear that next year 'QUALITY' is going to be the primary corporate focus, but with no other specifics. So they do what any good employee or team would do – they come up with their own quality-related projects, and before you know it you and your senior staff are being inundated with sponsorship requests for a minor plethora of disconnected but must-have investments in quality coming from all quarters.
Both of these two issues can be at least partly addressed with an adequate strategy management tool, one that facilitates the design and development of the execution half of strategy, linked to goals, objectives, projects, initiatives and metrics, and then serves as a communication vehicle out to the wider organization. A solid BI platform wouldn’t hurt either.
A third issue is the attitude occasionally seen where senior management simply doesn’t get it; they don’t understand why their leadership and sponsorship is necessary in the first place. They have developed and communicated the strategy and simply expect the rest of the organization to just get on with it. They see the need for their involvement as some sort of weakness or incompetence in the middle management ranks. “Was I not clear that I wanted an integrated customer intelligence platform in place by year end?” Sort of a “strategy execution by threat” style of management.
My fourth prescription follows logically from the first two. If you do a proper job of strategic planning and make a point of clear communication of the corporate strategy and priorities, then you are in a position to assign executive sponsorship up front and avoid the downstream battle royale. “Here are our six strategic initiatives for the year along with their executive sponsors, so don’t be coming to us with a seventh or eighth project – we have a process for that.”
But I’m not certain this approach will be sufficiently adequate in most cases. My last suggestion is for the executive team to proactively go out in search of the detached projects and initiatives that are bubbling up across the organization. Scary, I know. It’s like opening Pandora’s box. But you need to know.
If there are, say, twelve significant projects being pushed upwards by the functions and business units that are looking for executive sponsorship, you need to know this, you need to be able to address those which are in fact in alignment with strategy and then provide the needed leadership without the feeling of being coerced into it. And you need to be able to shut down the others that are either not strategic or which would be too taxing on limited senior management time if they were all to be implemented simultaneously. Perhaps they can be worked into next year’s plan, or perhaps those involved need to be politely informed that, while well-meaning, the projects simply are not in alignment with long term strategy, and need to be dropped now.
Your employees shouldn’t have to be worrying about whether or not their project will get the executive leadership it needs in order to succeed. It should be clear to them up front that their project is strategic, approved and fully supported. You want them spending their time finding creative ways to solve big problems that transform the company and/or the market, not playing internal politics. Strategy execution is one of the hardest games in town, and it’s why your leadership is critical.