Are your Strategies Aligned for Action?

Southwest Airlines, Whole Foods Markets, and Target are just a few companies whose stores (or planes) I frequent. I began to wonder, particularly in this recession, how these companies were continuing to perform relatively well – despite people’s reduction in discretionary spending. Every time I head to Love Field in Dallas the Southwest terminal is buzzing and passengers are on ‘stand by.’ Each visit to Whole Foods and Target, I find them packed.

Why is this? Is it their offerings? Is it their customer service? Is it their location? Is it their chosen ‘target market’ coupled with market conditions; i.e. Whole Foods provides quality, healthy food, whereas, Target offers great value for less and Southwest is the perceived strong price/service value while making the experience ‘fun’! Yes. All these points are partial reasons for their ongoing success. However, I believe their success comes down to something more basic — aligning their overall strategies into action.

Think about it …

  • When have we ever been on a Southwest Airlines flight where every flight attendant, every pilot, and every ticket agent doesn’t share the same contagious energy focused 100% around the customer experience? (For a further expose on this company, refer to a previous blog).
  • When I arrive at Whole Foods, I am amazed at how healthy (and happy) everyone looks! It is as if the employee takes the healthy food, exercise and vitamin regime to heart. I don’t know whether they do or not – however, that is the perception.
  • And Target? All I can say is years ago when they began turning their brand around with the fresh and exciting ad campaigns and followed through with the perfect mix of product, price, and store-friendly layout, they set an expectation that they have delivered on which has built a loyal and solid customer base who are sold on Target.

From my perspective, these companies have built their brands to embrace the customer experience and cater to their ultimate satisfaction; and their employees, from top to bottom, are equally sold on the strategy and in making it happen. There are other wonderful companies out there, but bottom line, a strategy – regardless how brilliant it may be – won’t work if the entire team doesn’t get it and doesn’t execute against it.

So, how do you insure your teams line up and focus on what you deem your strategy? Do you remember the popular adage “we move in the direction of our focus?” How do you insure that you are focusing and rowing in the same direction?

Let me offer seven basic questions to ask yourselves and your executive (and extended) teams (bare with me, it may appear long, but this is a quick read):

  1. Where and what do we want to be? As Stephen Covey has infamously said, “Plan with the end in mind.” What is the overall end game? What does it look like?Be specific. Be visual. If you don’t know the destination you will never know when (or if) you get there. Visioning is a powerful technique and one which has proven successful time and time again. Do it – individually and collectively.
  2. How will we know we are all executing (rowing) in the same, consistent, synergistic manner? Think about it, if one executive is rowing out of pace or rhythm with the others, the boat simply won’t move forward in the most streamlined, smooth way. This is where it’s important to put several check points or barometers in place to measure management, employee and customer feedback to make sure there is alignment from top to bottom.
  3. How do we know we are all in agreement with the approach needed to achieve our goals? Specifically, do we agree on the hard decisions which need to be made: the changes, the resource allocation, the new initiatives to built, the old initiatives to be cut? If you aren’t in agreement, then you can expect competition internally – turf wars on all levels – which ultimately puts the focus “inward troubles” and not “outward success.” Fat chance reaching your end goal. Be a leader. These difficult conversations must happen and hard choices must be made – and honored. 
  4. How do we communicate our mission, vision, approach, and overall success metrics consistently – to the market, to our teams, and the individual contributors in our organization?This is a powerful question – as many of us have been in organizations where leaders ‘put their own spin’ on what needs to happen. They ‘spin’ the message to either bolster their own personal agenda or their organizations’ agenda. They typically take this approach ‘behind closed doors’ (in the dark) – which plants a seed of dissention that is hard to stop once it starts growing. This will DERAIL the power of a strategic vision and associated plan quicker than anything. NET: in order for a strategic plan to recognize its full impact, everyone must be on board and communicating a consistent message with solid support – in the dark, as well as in the light. Abusers of this – must be called out and held accountable. 
  5. How do we reward the behaviors that will support the overall strategic intention? Typically, business equates this to money – annual bonuses, stock options, merit pay increases. What about public recognition and appreciation? For example, if one of the approaches you want to encourage, as you strive to execute the strategic plan, is ‘risk taking’ and ‘out of box thinking,’ how do you reward this behavior? If you want to improve customer service with the individual check-out clerk, what incentives are in place to reward this person (who is at an income level to respond to incentives)?
  6. What are the few critical things that absolutely must go right for us to be successful? This is your “can’t fail” list. It’s the critical key factors you will use to measure your success. In my experience, this is where the rubber meets the road; as more often than not, this can be a source of disagreement. Before you can move forward, these have to be ironed out. Not only the ‘what’ needs to happen, but the ‘how to achieve’ needs to be addressed. Again, difficult conversations, hard choices, and trade-offs must be made – and honored.
  7. What benchmarks do we put in place to track and insure ongoing execution against these goals – and reward progress? What systemic mechanisms can we put into place to encourage forward momentum?What gets measured gets managed – and if you don’t have your fingers continually on the pulse; you won’t know how you are doing. Keep your eyes peeled for possible internal dissention, market feedback, lack of resource, inadequate competencies, etc. This is not a static process. You will have to tweak and adjust and continue moving forward. Often businesses draw up a plan, launch it, communicate to all the constituents, and then ‘wait’ for traction throughout the organization. This is terribly short-sighted. In the absence of focus and attention, most people will revert back to the familiar. Most people are not huge fans of change. Thus, only through rewarding individual and collective progress (from executive to individual contributor) will you be able to sustain the progress toward that ‘end goal.’

At the end of the day, strategies are imperative (that’s a totally different blog!). Strategies provide an overall ‘map and vision.’ Remember, however, maps are not the actual ‘terrain,’ instead they help us understand and navigate the terrain. Maps (or strategies) don’t ensure success – by any stretch of the imagination. Execution is the operative word. Without action, all great ideas and strategies are useless. Let’s face it – there is no shortage of ‘great ideas’ and ‘great strategies.’

The difference resides in those that ‘do it’ through ‘alignment’ around a common aspirational strategy … pulled together and jointly delivered, so that it becomes actionable, measurable, and a powerful compass to your teams’ ultimate destination.