Accelerating Business Results in Record Time: Intent, Alignment, and Execution

Many businesses take organizational communication for granted, but clear alignment and collective understanding of intent does not just happen. The good news is that the causes of breakdowns in communication, and inevitably execution, are predictable and avoidable.

As the top executive in your firm, you have one critical business mandate: to lift the trajectory of your business NOW, despite the many things working against you. These include the gravitational pull of status quo and legacy performance management practices not aligned to where you want to take the organization. 

If you are like most executives, you probably overestimate the effectiveness of your own communication. Do you really provide the necessary clarity for people to operate at pace in an aligned fashion? CEO communication fails to hit its mark 73.2 percent of the time, so it’s no wonder that efforts to execute against strategy fall apart so quickly (Sull D., Homkes, R., & Sull, C., March 2015).

In our many years of working with clients, and from our collective experience operating as members of special forces, we have found three key things the top executive must do immediately to make a real impact, and quickly.

First, ensure people understand your “strategic intent.” 

Any direction you give that involves shifting the direction of your firm is wrought with potential missteps. Since you cannot be present for every decision, your team will need the freedom to act in the best interests of the firm. Critical to that is everyone understanding and agreeing on your strategic intent. 

This may begin with the company’s very reason for being—its purpose—or simply be the ONE thing that makes the biggest difference in executing against the strategy. Make sure this is clear across your firm and that all employees know that, when in doubt, they can use this as their beacon for determining the best course of action. A few examples of how well-known companies use strategic intent to guide companywide actions include:

  • Charles Schwab’s intent is shifting the power from Wall Street to Main Street. Everyone at the firm knows that all actions must support the objective of equipping individual investors to make a more informed investment choice. 
  • Disney’s “make people happy” intent empowers employees to prioritize customer satisfaction above all else in their decision-making. 
  • Anheuser-Busch InBev (ABI) holds an annual LPC (Leadership, Performance, and Change) initiative in every Zone every year for the express purpose of reminding leaders of their strategic intent; discussing how things have progressed with any changes, and solving problems for the business at the macro level.

Establishing this clarity up front, and ensuring people understand it, requires conversations with your leaders to confirm and discuss their interpretations of the intent through their lens, not yours. It is worth noting that during times of significant change, intent alignment is more important than ever, and the conversations must become more frequent, not less. 

Next, align leaders to the “strategic agenda.” 

Because your employees are human, they will be locked into mental models that manifest themselves as habits or ways of working that may not serve your new strategic agenda well—and they won’t let go of them easily. You do not have time to review all of these and make choices as to which do and don’t serve the future. Instead:

  • Consistently point your teams to those areas that will make the most difference. This starts with strategic intent but then leads to what are the must-win battles (MWBs) that make the requisite impact on business performance. These are the initiatives, each with its own set of key performance indicators (KPIs), that must be delivered no matter what. To break the silos at the very highest levels, your leadership team must operate as a “first team” (Lencioni, Patrick, “The Five Dysfunctions of a Team”) that only achieves success if all MWBs are won. 
  • Ensure transparency by making sure intent and MWBs remain visible to everyone. Some of our clients are even going “old school” and putting mission boards on their walls that outline the current priorities and various tasks that are underway across the organization. They revisit these regularly as new information and demands emerge, which empowers them to adapt with agility.
  • Adopt an enterprise-wide business performance management system, like a GPS tool, to keep everybody honest. This makes the focus transparent, illustrates alignment across functions, and supports leaders as they work to close business performance gaps. It elevates the focus to big picture (aka, enterprise) thinking, rather than concentrating on a single function or department. If you establish your focus and make it tangible using a transparent and agile tool, the distractions and noise will fade away.

Finally, operationalize strategy execution through a war room led by a Mission Delivery director.

Once communication is clarified and everyone is aligned to your strategic intent, it’s time to implement change. The best way to do this is by creating a “war room” and empowering a director to oversee it. They will work with the executive team to manage the critical business change efforts by driving an enterprise-wide mindset and set of behaviors to deliver results. In addition to the CEO, this director is the ONE person whose job is to look out for the total business as their main effort. This role should include:

  • Supporting top leaders in managing strategy execution by ensuring all the game-changing priorities of the business are set, well understood, and carried out inside the firm. 
  • Looking after the cross-functional interdependencies that are crucial to the effort.
  • Organizing, joining, and supporting important meetings to challenge the process, dig for root issues, close gaps, and ensure the teams are getting the support they need from the rest of the organization.

In short, their focus is on doing what matters most, without bias, for the business to succeed. This individual must have gravitas and influence, and not sit on the side lines or be subservient to anyone but the business. They are not there to create slides for the CEO or organize the management team meeting. This is a truly different role that must be staffed properly.

Taking a Page from the Military

In the military, there is a concept of “mission command” where those who staff this function are empowered by the Commander to take initiative and enable disciplined execution against the “Commander’s intent,” adapting as necessary to ensure it is realized. This function proves itself necessary in business as there are simply too many distractions and demands on everyone’s time. Too often, diagnostics reveal that demands from HQ, regional office, or even local functional leaders are not aligned to the strategic intent of the organization. The director is there as a compass to keep everyone pointed in the right direction while managing any ad hoc priorities that emerge throughout the year.

Many businesses take organizational communication for granted, but clear alignment and collective understanding of intent does not just happen. The good news is that the causes of breakdowns in communication, and inevitably execution, are predictable and avoidable. 

So commit the time, people, and technology to ensure clarity and alignment up front, along with a mechanism to monitor on an ongoing basis and keep the business on track. Simple as it may sound, getting everyone on the same page might be the single most important step toward lifting the trajectory of your business and achieving your business mandate.

Duke Maines is an organizational psychologist with more than 25 years of leadership development and change experience. A consultant with McKinney Rogers, his passion, energy, and unconventional solutions have helped several organizations transform their culture—and their business—while inspiring growth of their leaders both personally and professionally. 

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