By: Garnet Tosswill, Senior Consultant
Some believe that building a strategy requires an independent leader who sets direction despite uncertainty. While there’s some truth in this, strategists must lead – as well as listen to others.
Listening is key because leaders need information from the “ground troops” while managers must know their thoughts are being heard. Equally, everyone must be looped-in about the organization’s alignment with the selected strategy.
Leading is important because it rises above politics without the loss of strategic focus. It fosters decision-ownership that translates into strategy which ensures objectives are routinely met. A self-reinforcing strategy organically prunes “stray limbs” or pet projects that don’t underpin the overall objective.
But how do strategists balance these two seemingly divergent requirements?
Unpacking BREXIT to illustrate why leading and listening leads to crafting executable strategies
Following the UK’s vote to leave the EU, Theresa May became the Prime Minister tasked with orchestrating and managing the execution of the country’s divorce from the bloc.
Although she was bold in her vision to deliver this major strategic shift, May missed several opportunities to listen to the plan’s integral stakeholders:
- A petition for a second referendum attracted over four million signatures but was rejected by the government on July 9th, 2018.
- The House of Commons voted 432 to 202 against her proposed terms for exiting the EU on January 15th
- A motion of no confidence tabled by the opposition was narrowly rejected by 325 votes to 306.
- Adjustments to the original terms on March 12 were voted against 391 to 242.
Given party lines, May might not have had much of a choice to reconsider. Nonetheless, strategists can learn from this case study.
Successful listening in strategic planning
To find the sweet spot between leading and listening, strategists should establish and communicate a clear blueprint for undertaking the strategic planning process. This will ensure its key stakeholders feel ownership of the process that should:
- Outline the plan’s progression from vision to implementation. Doing so informs participants about ground rules for engagement and offers opportunities to share critical information from the “boots on the ground” perspective.
- Be iterative in the plan’s design. Segmenting the plan promotes a climate of input sharing, and removes the fear of saying something that might be locked into the plan without the possibility of later change.
- Respect the chain of command. Content should be shared with those who will need to execute the plan and approved by the C-suite, followed by the board.
Building a tight strategy and the leadership behind it
Strategists should ask challenging questions to help the planning team understand why some inputs shouldn’t be included in the strategy. They should also:
- Listen carefully before taking action. Consolidate findings into themes and explain why certain concepts didn’t make the cut.
- Drive progress through process. Review a decision to ensure it makes sense but don’t fall prey to analysis paralysis.
- Capitalize on the permission to iterate. It often takes more than one attempt to get it right
Strategists are more likely to build a plan poised to meet strategic objectives if they balance the need to act as active listeners and decision makers. Getting the right balance is also vital to facilitating strategic alignment that is necessary for the plan’s successful execution.