April 16th, 2018
In part two of our series on organizational health, we will examine the importance of leadership teams communicating with clarity to their organizations. The importance of this cannot be overstated. In fact, until organizations can master this, those company mission and vision statements are simply words on a wall with little meaning.
Communicating with clarity requires leadership teams to go back to the basics. What I mean by this is returning to those simple but critical questions which define why and how your organization exists? Once leadership can agree to the answers to these questions, this will set the foundation for organizational alignment and health. To be completely effective, this set of questions is meant to be answered collectively.
- 1. Why do we exist?
- 2. How do we define values?
- 3. What do we do?
- 4. How will we succeed?
- 5. What is the single most important priority right now?
- 6. Who does what?
While these questions seem simple, even trivial, getting the answers is not. Getting these answers will require three things; one, total buy-in or cohesion from the top. To achieve communication alignment, it needs to start with the highest levels of the organization. Second, keep the language simple. Many times, getting caught up on fancy marketing phrases can easily result in ambiguity and lead people astray with the true meaning of the answers. Third, allow for an ample amount of time to come up with these answers. The key here is to first get something down on paper, and then take a few weeks to refine those answers until all members can at least agree they communicate the direction or path of the organization.
Question 1: Why do we exist?
Simply put, what is the organization’s main purpose? What is the main reason(s) why the organization exists? Every organization’s leadership team should be able to identify this and put it into clear and concise language. Even if leadership has already done this, now would be a perfect opportunity to revisit this question and affirm the answer(s) have not changed. The key here is to determine what the motivations of the owners or founders were when the organization was first started. Depending on the age of the company and availability of those that were around in the very beginning, it may be difficult to uncover those true passions and motivators. If that is the case, then the approach should be to have leaders try and answer these questions as if they were the founders. Getting to the true heart of this is like peeling an onion. If you come up with a general statement such as “we strive to provide superior service to our customers”. The next question should be “Why do we strive to provide superior service to our customers?” The answer to that question should also be followed with why. That process repeats with asking why until the most idealistic answer for why we exist is uncovered.
Question 2: How do we define values?
For any company to become organizationally healthy, it requires a close look at its values. Values are another way of saying company culture. This is how we do things here. Nothing is more important for an organization than to communicate with clarity what it stands for and what it values. This impacts many different groups of individuals that interact with the organization, such as employees, external partners or vendors, and customers. When an organization identifies and exercises its values, it must communicate them with clarity. One of the benefits of this are attracting the right employees while repelling the wrong ones, therefore, making recruiting easier and reducing employee turnover. When customers believe in and stand by a company’s values, it strengthens the organization’s brand and reinforces customer loyalty.
There are different kinds of values organizations identify with and maintain. These include core values, ambitious values, behavioral values, and unintended values. Core values are the ones that are deeply engrained into the fabric of the organization. They are the guideposts for how organizations make their decisions and how they run their operations, and do not change over time. Core values are what organizations stand by even when they are in the middle of adversity or on the wrong side of public opinion. They would even be willing to depart with employees, vendors, and customers, if that is what is required to defend their core values.
Ambitious values are ones the organization would desire to have and believes it must develop to maximize its success. Unlike core values, ambitious values are manufactured into the culture and could change over time. Therefore, it is a common mistake for organizations to confuse the two. Leaders need to understand the difference between each.
Behavioral values are ones that can easily be confused as core values. Examples of this are: integrity, respect for others, honesty, etc. While these are certainly nice to have as core values this would mean the organization would need to hold themselves in a very high regard, higher than most other organizations in existence. Keep in mind that core values are ones that are non-negotiable for an organization. This means that no matter what the circumstance, they will not tolerate any deviation from them. In business, there could be a blurry line between what some would consider ethical and unethical business practices. If one of your organization’s core values is integrity, look closely at your organization’s business practices because they may not fully fall in line with your organization’s core values, but more likely behavioral values. The point here is to make sure you place all your organization’s values in the proper categories. Unintended values are those that have developed within the organization over time but were not purposely established or agreed upon by leadership. They are the unplanned result of the organization’s business practices over time. For example, Google’s hiring practices early on were focused on hiring the best and the brightest. What that meant for Google was hiring people with advanced technical degrees, certifications, and a high-grade point average. The unintended result of this was many of their hires had the technical skills needed for the job but did not have the soft skills required to work with teams. This resulted in a high turnover rate for them.
Question 3. What do we do?
This question is the easiest of all to answer. There is no need to come up with a clever or abstract phrase here, just plain English with a couple of sentences that explain what the company does. Think carefully about the nouns and verbs that describe the business.
Question 4. How will we succeed?
All organizations come with different ideas and definitions about their strategy. In the most general terms, strategy can be defined as an organization’s collection of deliberate decisions to give itself the best position to prosper and segregate it from its competition. So, how does this translate into actions that an organization’s leaders can follow? The key is to identify and write down everything that can be identified about the organization. This includes anything from how the company markets its products, to how they view and treat their employees. The output is a big list of things that may appear unrelated, but, in fact, are related. Examples of items in this list would be: product pricing, marketing, service, end-user experience, supply-chain, hiring, employee benefits, training, employee development, promotions, diversity programs, social responsibility, etc. Once you have a list that seems comprehensive, then look for three common traits or features that may tie two or more items together. Write down those common traits. These traits are ones that are fundamental to the organization in how they make their most important decisions. Through this process new traits or features may appear. Be sure to capture those as well. These traits act as filters which provide clarity to leadership for what they should be focused on and what they shouldn’t be focused on.
Question 5. What is single most important priority right now?
As the old saying goes, if everything is a priority then nothing is a priority. One of the most common traps many organizations fall into and follow today is establishing multiple priorities with the expectation that everything is completed on time, within budget, and with superior quality. The reality is what gets produced is late, over budget, and with sub-standard value. This is because organizations think that doing more equals getting more. While that may be true, the question becomes, at what cost? If the organization wants to create a sense of alignment, it must identify a single, top priority to be achieved within a certain time.
In one of my past blog posts, I wrote about project managers having a sense of urgency. Organizations should carry that same sense of urgency around the most important priority identified by executive leadership. Leadership should identify a single, urgent priority that must be met, completed, or satisfied by the organization within a certain period. This single priority will provide the clarity not only to leadership, but also to the rest of the organization in how and where it spends it’s time, energy, and resources across the organization. Once this is agreed upon, every executive member must make this a priority within their business division or department. This idea ties back to my first article in this series: Organizational Health Part 1: Strong Leadership Teams.
After the priority has been established, the next step is to define four to five defining objectives which support meeting the most important priority. These are the general categories of activities that arerequired to meet the priority. These can be defined as temporary, agreed upon by leadership, and qualitative in nature. The last area covered is identifying the standard operations objectives. These objectives are the day-to-day areas that leadership is required to keep fixated on while focusing on the priority goal. These include things like revenue, marketing, new business, customer retention, etc.
Question 6. Who does what?
While this question seems straightforward, there are traps that leadership can easily fall into when compiling these answers. It is easy to assume that clarity exists, and everyone knows exactly what they are responsible for and what is someone else’s responsibility. Don’t let job titles or job descriptions support those assumptions or confuse the role. To test this out, try this simple exercise; have each one of the executive leadership team members write down their role and responsibility, as they understand it within the organization. Compare each member’s notes to see if they captured their role and responsibility correctly, if there was any overlap (two or more members wrote down the same responsibility), and finally, if there were any missing responsibilities due to one or more member’s assumption that the role or responsibility was being covered by another member.
After the leadership team has agreed on the answers to all six questions, the next step is to write them down in a document that can be used for future decision making, planning and communications. Some organizations call it a playbook, some call it a bible; it really doesn’t matter if it is used and not sitting on a shelf somewhere. When drafting this document be sure to keep it short. Making it lengthy and including unnecessary information will only discourage people from reading it and discount its meaning and effectiveness. Finally, each member should keep a copy of the bible with them always when attending off-site meetings, staff meetings, and other gatherings to remind themselves and communicate to employees what the bigger picture is behind the organization. By consistently using these answers to guide the organization in their decision-making, planning, and communications, it will keep the leadership team communicating with consistency and clarity.