Strategic Planning – The Importance of Executive Alignment

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Among members of the C-suite, there’s perhaps no more important issue than alignment. After all, this is the group that’s supposed to be steering the course of the enterprise. So just ask yourself how successful they can be in their journey if they don’t agree on the final destination!

Many years ago, Peter Drucker, the dean of all management gurus, put it this way:

“Unless the business itself has thought through and communicated the vision, the decision-makers in the business will pull in different directions without even being aware of their divergences.”

— from Drucker, Management: Task, Responsibilities and Practices, 1973.

Another more recent team of business thinkers declared:

“Lots of management teams aren’t teams at all but committees, with each member representing his or her self-interest. Painful though it may be,
executive realignment — or alignment – must take place, because it’s a necessary foundation for building a strategy . . . .”

— from Treacy & Wiersema, The Discipline of Market Leaders, 1995.

Of course, the key question to ask here is, “Alignment on what?” Drucker, in the quote above, speaks of “vision.” Vitally important. And no less than the founder of IBM, the respected Thomas Watson Jr. famously said:

“I firmly believe that any organization, in order to survive and achieve success, must have a sound set of beliefs on which it premises all its
policies and actions . . . . I believe the most important single factor in corporate success is faithful adherence to those beliefs.”

— cited in Clark, Chandler, Barry, Organization and Identities, 1994

Together, these quotes begin to get at what senior executives must align on to lead their organizations to successful outcomes. First and foremost, the final destination or “vision” must be held in common. Underlying all must be an agreed-upon set of beliefs, principles or values that are inviolable. But as important as these are, by themselves they’re not enough. Because agreeing in theory is one thing, but agreeing on how to actually “get it done” in the real world is quite another. Beyond all this, too, remains this question: Just how do you go about fostering alignment among a group of high-powered individuals who hold strong opinions, not only about the business, but often about each other as well?

Helping numerous senior executive groups arrive at consensus around their strategic plans over more than twenty-five years has allowed us to hone practical, consensus-building techniques that work effectively within the unique requirements of the C-suite. It’s also given us real insight into the critical elements leaders must agree on to substantively move their companies forward.

We facilitate our strategic planning engagements in such way as to ensure, as Drucker and Watson advise, that executives define their business’s vision and values interactively, authentically and collaboratively, in a manner that allows for true alignment. Beyond this, though, they must also come together on the following elements as well:

• Mission – the answer to the question “What business are we in?”
• Overarching corporate Goals – statements that define what various dimensions of the business are committed to achieve in areas, for instance, such as quality, human capital, growth, profitability, etc.

But even once these are defined, we’re still not done with the alignment process. Note that all of the strategic planning elements mentioned so far are high-level, strategic expressions of definition or achievement. Nothing wrong with this – as far as it goes. But perhaps the most damning criticism of strategic planning is that it’s an academic, “pie-in-the-sky” exercise that produces a document that gathers dust on a shelf without translating into real-world results.

Thoreau gives us the solution to this problem: “If you have built castles in the air,” he says, “your work need not be lost; that is where they should be. Now put the foundations under them.”

Accordingly, any effective strategy session must ensure that senior leaders move beyond goals and principles, however valid, to hammer out clear, concrete and actionable implementation plans. For us, these take the form of the following elements:

• Strategies – clear statements of methods or approaches for achieving the afore-mentioned corporate Goals.
• Tactics – Concrete, discrete, “actionable” initiatives – each with a defined owner and delivery date – which must be implemented in order to execute the related Strategies.

Typically, for a senior executive team that seeks to develop a complete strategic plan, our interactive planning process can take up to as many as six days to work through, across a two to three month period, not counting significant prep work and follow-up. However, this is the kind of open, strenuous, self-challenging process C-suite executives often require in order to arrive at a common view of their enterprise and where they want to take it.

Whatever process you elect to use, consider the take-aways from the kind of rigorous approach we’ve described here. First, it’s important to use a strategic planning model that covers all the important bases and questions. Second, and equally important, it’s absolutely vital to execution to ensure that your plan balances high-level, strategic – some would say “blue-sky” thinking – with elements that address concretely what will be done by whom and when where “the rubber meets the road.”

Key point: this will take time! Again and again we refuse to be involved in token, “quickie” planning exercises that consist of a day or so’s planning time, shoe-horned into what sounds to us primarily like an executive off-site junket. Effective planning sessions are time-consuming, difficult, often messy and sometimes even contentious. But that’s often the price of achieving real – vs. superficial – executive alignment.

If this seems daunting to you, look at it this way: The speed you’ll achieve and the time you’ll save during implementation, when senior leaders are no longer “pulling in different directions,” will more than make up for the “blood, sweat and tears” your planning sessions cost you. And in service of making your senior management “group” a senior executive “team,” that’s a trade-off that’s always worth making.