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The Power of Strategic Commitment: Part III

November 17, 2009

This the third segment of my interview with with Gershon Mader, co-author of The Power of Strategic Commitment. Part I and Part II of my interview were shown last week.

JT – The past two decades have seen a long parade of process tools and practices, ranging from Business Process Reengineering to Total Quality Management to Six Sigma. Should companies be placing less emphasis on new fad tools and the management of “things,” and more on achieving results through effective leadership? And what would that look like from your perspective?

GM – Some of those process tools and practices, whether they are about quality, processes or re-engineering—can provide effective frameworks for consistency and discipline when CEOs need to elevate quality or turn around their business performance. So I am not dismissing them or saying companies should place less emphasis on them. I do think, however that it is important for CEOs to understand that the success of these process tools and practices will depend on the context they create around these programs, i.e., the level of authentic ownership, commitment and accountability they generate within their organization.

Trying to get everyone to comply with the content and process will not be enough. So many times, we have seen the most elaborate, well-defined, well-scripted processes poorly executed because people in the different functions and departments (sales, manufacturing, customer service, shipment, billing ) did not work together. Instead of fully partnering, collaborating and communicating, they were busy pointing fingers and blaming others for not handing over things in the right way. It’s not that they didn’t understand the process. It’s just that when authentic alignment and engagement are missing, people don’t trust the process or their leaders, and they don’t truly believe in the success and future of the company or project. They don’t leave. They stay and comply. They figure out how to ‘go along to get along’ without investing their hearts and minds in the game. In many cases, ineffective or downright counterproductive corporate compensation and incentives only make matters worse.

In contrast, we have also seen organizations that implemented quality and re-engineering programs very effectively because they built a very authentic and powerful environment of ownership, alignment and engagement around them. So, everyone in their organization genuinely aligned and engaged to making the program successful.

Unfortunately, many leaders still don’t get the importance of creating a powerful context of commitment toward their strategy. By this I mean that they may understand it conceptually; they may even say all the right things. But they don’t do what it takes to generate total alignment and engagement. So despite large investments, their programs often don’t reach their potential and don’t become ingrained in the organizational DNA.

JT – You make a very important observation on creating cohesion among the senior management team when presenting a six-phase strategic commitment journey. You give the example of Rob Alexander, chief of strategy at Capital One as someone who was brought in to turn around a flagging project. In effect you’re proposing a framework for change, in which the senior management team must first get its act together before attempting to cascade change down through the organization.

To operationalize this framework, what daily practices would you see as essential for a CEO in order to see new behaviours to stick within the senior team?

GM – Our book is filled with examples, including charts and checklists that answer your question, so I won’t try and capture all of them. Here are a few that I think are essential:

• The CEO needs to know that the organization is only as strong as its leadership. Because of that he or she needs to take personal responsibility for building a high level of leadership in the leadership team and organization, including trust, communication, collaboration, ownership and accountability.

• CEOs need to constantly monitor what is working and not working in the dynamic of their team. When they sense any lack of alignment, engagement, trust, collaboration and communication in any area they need to address it immediately.

• They need to spend time on the manufacturing floor, or walking the office environment having informal conversations with managers and employees. They need to keep asking the tough questions like: “What is working well and what is not?” and “How can your managers and I do a better job?” They need to be sincerely open to feedback, and especially to criticism about themselves. After all, people will speak up only if they feel their leaders are sincerely open and have the courage to receive feedback.

• When speaking with their managers and employees, they should listen to what people say, and also to what they don’t say. There are always the hallway conversations (we call them the background conversations or background noise) that permeate the organization. By paying attention to these, they can keep their fingers on the pulse of their organization.

• While they need to give credit to others for successes, whenever possible and appropriate, they also need to take ownership, together with others, for issues and problems. They apply the principle that “If it happened in their organization, it has to do with them.”

• They never engage in conversations about “Who’s to blame?” and “Whose fault it is” because they understand that those are useless, undermining conversations that make no difference and only promote protection, lying and CYA behaviour. Instead, they foster dialogue about “What was missing?”, “What can we learn from what happened?” and “How can we correct the problem?”.

• They also need to understand that it doesn’t matter what they say; what matters is what they do. So they shouldn’t waste time lecturing people. Instead, they should become focused on becoming role models through their own open, honest, authentic and courageous communication and behaviour.

• Strong CEOs don’t have a problem saying things like “I don’t know”, “I made a mistake” and “I’m sorry” when it’s appropriate.

• They need to constantly look at what they can do to empower, elevate, mentor and coach the leaders in their organization. This will allow them to take on bolder goals and demand great courage, leadership and accountability from their leaders. The more they mentor and coach their leaders the more they can demand and expect from them.

• Powerful CEOs also understand that their job is to develop leaders around them. In fact, this is one of their measures of success. They are not afraid to develop leaders who are stronger than they are.

• Finally they’re not narcissistic. They should constantly focus on how to elevate and promote people; how to provide opportunities for their leaders to grow and shine. They should create stars around them rather than be the stars themselves.

I’ll stop here. This should give any CEO something to think about.

This concludes my indepth interview with Gershon Mader. I hope you have found this informative and helpful to understanding how important it is to engage and align employees. If you have a momment, check out Gershon’s guest post on my blog about his excellent book myths of strategic planning. See you soon.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. November 17, 2009 8:06 pm

    That’s one of life’s greater mysteries, Susan. Consider how brutally competitive the global economy has become, combined with a recession, it kind of defies belief. At one time you used to see CEOs who had been with their companies a long time and had a sense of loyalty and understanding of the business. Now CEOs tend to move around constantly. Whether that’s part of the problem I’m not sure. It would be good to get some other views.

  2. November 17, 2009 7:22 pm

    The list of daily practices that GM sees as essential for CEOs is excellent. Reading through them you can easily see how they would help to build a better team and improve an organization. I wonder then why so few CEOs apply these practices.

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