It takes a village to implement strategy. That's the belief of Liz Mellon, a former professor at the London Business School and an executive director with Duke CE, the world's largest provider of executive education.
This village is a specific group of people: The top 100 people in your organization, who may well be spread across the country or globe, and may rarely come together. But they are still a village, and key to executing strategy.
The village concept emerged as Ms. Mellon studied the reasons why strategy fails to get implemented, along with Simon Carter, the former CEO of Baxi Heating in the United Kingdom and a Duke educator.
For the first 70 years of the past century, the blame for failed strategy usually fell on workers, who were viewed as lazy and taking any opportunity to slack off. Then the focus shifted to middle managers, once considered the glue holding organizations together but now seen as a roadblock.
Lately, the barrier comes from the layer of officials in the company just below the top executive team, Ms. Mellon feels. Her research suggests they are being ordered to implement strategy they don't necessarily believe in. And competition between these senior leaders – for power, and to make their own unit successful – can lead to them working at cross-purposes.
In a survey of 80 top officials at one bank, for example, she found continual complaints about what "the bank" did. They were amongst the highest cadre of executives in the bank, but were talking about the organization as if it were distinct from them, and menacing. "If top officials don't take responsibility for strategy execution, then we are stuck," Ms. Melon said in an interview.
Historically, villages were important forms of decision-making; villagers would get together and collectively decide important issues. But these days, folks at the organizational peak don't feel like a real village. In their book The Strategy of Execution, Ms. Mellon and Mr. Carter report about one executive who complained: "You tell us that we are the top 150, but we don't even know each other. We are not even a group. We hardly ever meet." These people hold critical posts, yet they lack connectivity and a sense of joint purpose.
Senior executives often tend to meet once a year, an annual session that is seen as a necessary evil, Ms. Mellon notes. Strategy is handed down from on high. There is little exchange, other than a message from the chief executive for the village members to make the strategy work. One Nokia executive told her that as the company faltered from 2008 to 2011, the village members simply didn't believe the strategy, but let it be. "Unless [the CEO] can convince this top group, they won't make it work," she said in the interview.
CEOs must reconsider how they have sold their strategy to the village, because if its members don't feel ownership for the strategy, it's doomed. That means having a conversation. It means checking that the strategy can be effective across the organization. It means determining that the strategy can be implemented without stoking natural conflicts. "It's no good if Fred believes in it and Janet does as well, but they are undermining each other by what they do," Ms. Mellon said. "There are so many organizations where different divisions are competing for the same customers."
While an annual meeting is critical, it's insufficient. To build the concept of a village working together, she said CEOs must get the individuals together more frequently and create a feedback loop so it's known how things are working out and where difficulties are arising. These meetings can help to determine if the villagers are pulling together and taking ownership for the strategy; and, once the strategy hits the reality of implementation, if it is workable.
She encourages "red flag" conversations in which difficult issues are confronted. The more common phrase for this, she said, is addressing the elephant in the room. "This is often a really difficult and awkward conversation," she said. "They have to … tell the truth and put things on the table that will be hard." This is particularly difficult in a highly political climate, where people aren't committed to the overall goal but instead to pathways that bring more immediate benefits to them or their departments.
But CEOs must persist, not only because the villagers have probably been blocking strategy from being implemented, but also because in large organizations no one person can handle it all. If the top boss tries to control everything, everyone else will sit back. "Stop doing it yourself. Let go. You can't see all the complexities and details and you can't be fast enough," she advises those at the top.
So identify the village in your organization. Make sure its members meet regularly. Don't assume they will do what you order them to. Encourage open conversations in which they come to accept strategy as a collective responsibility. Get them behind the strategy, and you are more likely to succeed.
Special to The Globe and Mail
Harvey Schachter is a Battersea, Ont.-based writer specializing in management issues. He writes Monday Morning Manager and management book reviews for the print edition of Report on Business and an online work-life column Balance. E-mail Harvey Schachter