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be a better leader

How effective you are as a leader depends on how well you can influence your team to follow your direction to achieve a specific goal. But when an organization lacks a clearly defined set of directions issued by those at the top – a strategic plan – its success is at risk.

A thoughtful strategic plan maps out where the organization wants to be within a defined period of time and how it will get there. If there is no master game plan, then there is no common set of co-ordinates that all managers can factor in when they are setting their own teams' goals and direction. As a result, not all leaders will head in the same direction. That's a recipe for failure.

To be effective, a strategic plan must clearly communicate the executive leadership's expectations to all employees, and that's best done by following a simple, four-step framework to develop a credible plan.

Each step is independent and influences the one that follows:

1. Define the vision

Often the leader or group that controls the organization's finances defines the vision of where the organization should be in three to five years.

The vision sets the pace for driving the strategic planning process. It also provides clarity on the executive's view with respect to future expectations, growth, market share and key indicators of success.

2. Pick the right people

This is important. For example, a company aiming to expand its market share in a particular sector should recruit people who have a background in marketing. Each core business unit should also have a member on the strategic planning team.

That team should include a variety of types of people – visionaries, risk takers and risk-averse personalities – to prevent "group think." The team's end objective is to develop a thoughtful and strategic plan for senior executives to bring their vision to reality.

3. Have a timeline

The team should have a defined period of time when members can do individual research to get the best information available. The team needs to examine market conditions, and understand financial sensitivity and the organization's strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats.

The team must be clear on the timeline milestones and when the final version of the strategic plan must be presented to senior management for their final sign off.

4. Write the plan

When writing the strategic plan, use the following format:

Mission statement: Define where the organization will be, or what it will be doing, in three to five years. Be descriptive. For example: "Providing every customer a great experience every time – no exceptions."

Objectivesand milestones: List the core focus areas and the milestones that define success for each objective.

Challenges and opportunities: Think about what could go wrong and what you could do to offset any risk, as well what opportunities can be exploited.

Identify critical functions:Define what must happen for the organization to be able to achieve the strategic plan. Determine whether the necessary functions are in place or if new ones are needed. If the goal is to improve customer service, for example, then the company should formalize its service model and there spell out exactly how it plans to improve and measure its customer service capabilities.

Monitor progress: Outline how the strategic plan will be monitored and reported to executive leadership. It is common to use a scorecard that monitors and tracks the key objectives and milestones, as well as provide some kind of reporting, such as weekly or monthly, on the progress of all objectives.

Senior executive sign off: Get approval and prepare to implement the plan.

Communicate to leadership: Define how and when the plan will be presented to managers and employees. A goal-setting calendar will define when each level of leadership must have its goals completed.

Developing a strategic plan is a process, not an event. It is more than putting words on paper; it is about discovering the tactics that give an organization its best chance to win.

Bill Howatt is the president of Howatt HR Consulting and founder of TalOp, in Kentville, N.S. Website: