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Without people on board, your vision will sink

This column is part of Globe Careers' Leadership Lab series, where executives and experts share their views and advice about leadership and management. Follow us at @Globe_Careers. Find all Leadership Lab stories at

Over the course of my career, I've witnessed numerous strategies fail because of one missing link: a focus on people. I've seen brilliant minds fail to understand why two-thirds of their organization (including those in senior management) cannot articulate a strategy or vision years after its inception; why world-class systems, tools and processes are created but never adopted; why organizational culture cannot change overnight; why the company can't just become more customer-focused or efficient; and why people won't do what they're told to do, especially when directed to by their bosses.

But while generational differences have introduced an interesting twist in the workplace, it is not the reason for strategy failure. It's not a new problem, either. So why do so few companies seem to be able to get it right?

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I am the first to say that managing change is not rocket science. It is only natural that when executives are faced with complicated frameworks and theories of human behaviour, their eyes tend to glaze over. But investing in and trying to achieve a new business strategy without a strong foundation in people is a non-starter. Building the strategy is easy – it's the execution that's really hard.

Infusing change in an organization is actually pretty straightforward. People who are engaged are motivated to take action. Action is how a strategy is executed. Successful execution of a strategy translates into a return on investment. And it is the return on investment that becomes the differentiator. Competitive advantage is achieved by understanding how to build engagement and using that engagement to change behaviour across all levels of the organization.

So if we agree theoretically with this problem, why is it so rarely solved? What's the solution to the enigma of engagement?

Engaging people involves examining all facets of an organization, defining what it really means, what it implies for leaders, teams and individuals, and what it takes to truly compel people to take action. The key is to start simply: To focus on a small number of activities, to do those well, and to build momentum out of that success.

The first step is all about building the foundation: Communicating big ideas (the strategy) in clear words that people of all levels can relate to. (We'll explore steps 2 and 3, translating engagement into behaviour and executing the strategy, in subsequent columns.)

In the first step, efforts on strategy and planning need to be matched with an investment in people to make the vision real. Key steps include:

Identify and segment every person or group affected by the strategy.

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This includes people external to the organization. For each group, be clear about what motivates them, what concerns them and the medium through which they are most likely to absorb the information. Remember, groups are made up of individuals with varying interests, so hitting a variety of points is critical.

Identify key messages that every individual or group needs to hear.

Think about what people and leaders need to know about the big picture so that they understand the reasons and purpose of the strategy.

Target leaders first.

Align leaders around the cause so that they're equipped to influence others. It's nearly impossible to rally people without leader support.

Identify specific leaders to be accountable for communicating the vision.

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This has to be done within a prescribed period of time. A cascade approach is effective, starting with certain leaders and then cascading those messages through other influential people at various levels throughout the organization.

Diffuse the messages.

Reinforce the "why" with persistence (meetings, events, advertisements and social media). Use every opportunity to build awareness of what the strategy is all about. It takes about nine times for a message to be received – think broken record.

Ask a random sample of employees to describe the vision or strategy in a few words.

If a significant number can articulate where the company is headed (they don't have to completely agree or want to contribute to the vision yet), consider the foundation established.

One of my favourite mentors noted that Martin Luther King said "I have a dream," not "I have a business plan." In business, as in politics, we need to engage people first to set the stage for action. Strategic success starts and ends with people.

Ilana Hechter is a senior manager at Ernst & Young Canada (@EYCanada).

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