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The Power of Strategic Commitment: Part One

November 10, 2009

I’m very pleased to share with you an interview with Gershon Mader, co-author of The Power of Strategic Commitment. Gershon recently wrote a guest post on my blog about myths of strategic planning.

The interview is broken down into three parts, with the second and third appearing this Thursday and next Tuesday. This is being done because of the interview’s comprehensive nature and to allow the reader time to digest and reflect upon Gershon’s comments.

So let’s begin.


JT – There are many new books that talk about management, strategy, planning, business innovation, etc. But what struck me about the book that you, Josh Leibner and Alan Weiss wrote is its particular relevance to today’s economic environment. I’m not just referring to the recession and financial crisis we’ve experienced, but more broadly mounting global competition and the need for more adaptive companies in North America. And with all of these changes comes the call for effective leadership.

What was the spark, or catalyst, that brought the three of you together to collaborate on this book?

GM – We share a total of more than 80 years experience helping organizations around the world to improve their performance. Over that time, we have seen countless attempts to create more adaptive companies and to improve organizational performance: re-engineering, restructurings, mergers, acquisitions, cutbacks and many other flavors-of-the-month. Far too often, these initiatives fail, or simply don’t live up to their potential. They don’t produce the desired changes and results, either on the bottom line, or in terms of aligning and engaging people. Morale often suffers as well.

The common factor is almost always that even the most successful and experienced leaders don’t seem to know how to create a sound, ambitious strategy while simultaneously building a strong, authentic platform of ownership and commitment to organizational success. Too many leaders treat strategy as the domain of business-minded executives, and commitment/engagement as some separate arena to be relegated to the HR department. And yet, the risks are great: companies that pursue their strategy without the full buy-in and engagement of their people not only compromise their potential to win by leaving most of their team on the bench: they actually risk losing them when circumstances change, or when the strategy begins to fail. In companies where everyone is fully on board, changes in circumstances inspire people to come up with creative solutions and find ways to be better partners, rather than armchair quarterbacks who criticize and point out shortcomings in the original plans.

We see a huge difference between organizations that foster compliance, at best, and those that marry strategy and commitment to create an environment of total ownership and accountability to the success of their strategy. In our work, we have been able to teach and coach leaders and organizations how to generate an environment of total alignment and engagement toward their strategies. Again and again, we’ve seen the people in these organizations produce extraordinary results. So, we decided to write a book about the power of Strategic Commitment. This book is not merely about commitment or about strategy. It is a book about the marriage and integration of Strategy and Commitment.

JT – You refer to the “glue” that’s needed to create a shared focus and to generate energy for the change initiatives in organizations. And combined with this is what you call matrix management and the challenges of managing in a complex environment and across national borders. Talk to me about what you see as some of the key issues, or challenges, arising in this environment, as it relates to building commitment.

GM – Every organization, no matter how large, complex and geographically dispersed, needs to address the same fundamentals: invent, develop, package, market and sell products and services while satisfying—and preferably delighting—customers. The larger and more complex the organization, the more critical it is—and the more challenging—to communicate, coordinate and align processes, handoffs, commitments and deliverables in order to satisfy customers and achieve extraordinary results.

In a matrix management model, increasing sales and customer satisfaction depends on the ability of people at the centre (such as product, marketing and operations teams) to collaborate seamlessly with their regional and local sales teams. While this model is designed to overcome people’s natural inclination to favour their own silo rather than the good of the whole organization, it rarely works. In fact, it often reduces, instead of enhancing, collaboration, alignment and communication. Why? Because of internal politics.

Most organizations have great people who know how to make even the most complex and challenging things work. They are intelligent, knowledgeable, wise and experienced. However, all their good intentions get lost in the muddy waters of politics, agendas, silos, loyalties, personalities and egos. Politics undermines people’s courage and authenticity, and prevents them from communicating, collaborating, engaging and aligning effectively.

In fact, matrix management only amplifies the problems, because so many stakeholders who need to work together report to different organizations and bosses, who may or may not be aligned with the overall matrix strategy. These leaders will say the politically correct things in strategic meetings, but they often remain more concerned with preserving and promoting their own silo. This defeats the whole purpose of the matrix management model. Managers and employees pick up the explicit or implicit political messages coming from above. They feel torn between loyalties, and they become risk-averse, retreating to the path of least resistance and survival. This usually means staying loyal to their own functional team, and not the larger effort.

We have done a lot of transformational work to help global organizations achieve authentic, powerful alignment and engagement in a matrix environment. When multiple stakeholders come together across an organization to form a seamless team, they often need to air, address and resolve a litany of concerns, criticisms and old baggage before the matrix team can really gel. In a highly political environment, people avoid open, honest and courageous communication, so this badly-needed resolution never happens. Therefore, most matrix teams set out with an insufficient foundation of authentic trust, communication, cohesion and alignment. Once everyone is reduced to going through the motions, it’s an uphill battle, and there is no authentic commitment in sight.

On Thursday, Gershon talks about the distinction between commitment and compliance, and how to generate a sense of ownership and accountability. We’ll see you then.

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