“Help! Our Managers Don’t Think Strategically!”

© 2016 R McKnight

© 2016 R McKnight

This is an occasional blog on subjects pertaining to leadership, strategy, coaching, leadership development, and everything in between. You can sign up using the form at the left/bottom. © 2016 McKnight-Kaney.

We hear this complaint frequently from CEOs, other senior line executives, and HR leaders. 

Unfortunately, this grumbling rarely turns into effective problem solving, partly because the term “strategic thinking” has four interrelated, but different meanings. We think there is also a bit of a “blaming the victim” thing going on here, as we’ll make clear.

When we hear our clients say their managers “aren’t strategic,” we try to help them tease the underlying issues apart so they might decide what to do about it. Hopefully, this blog will help you clarify your thinking.

Look at the descriptors below and ask yourself, “OK. If our managers did think strategically, what would be different?” Check off as many as you would like to see apply in your situation. We think this is as good as any description of what it means to “think strategically.”

Our managers:

❏ Fully understand the company strategy and what it means for their personal role

❏ Connect their own organization’s efforts with the larger organization’s objectives

❏ Are visionary and forward thinking; they are focused on the long-term and the day-to-day

❏ Regularly and fully engage employees as partners in executing the company strategy

❏ Work in a coordinated way with others outside their function in pursuit of organizational objectives.

If you’re a senior leader, it’s hard to think it’s your fault when people don’t comprehend the strategy or fail to take quick and decisive action related to it. This especially true when you’ve spoken about the strategy until you’re blue in the face. But if they can't help others translate the strategy into action at their own level, they need to do more. This goes well beyond giving a lights-dimmed PowerPoint presentation.

In our book Leading Strategy Execution, we use the term “The Four Jobs of Strategy Execution.” If you find yourself saying that your middle-level managers “Don’t understand the strategy,” it’s very likely that the first two jobs are not getting done in your company:

Job One: Make sure all employees understand the strategy, i.e., get the “heads” involved.

Job Two: Engender enthusiasm for the strategy, i.e., get the “hearts” involved.

Job Three: Support all work units in taking action called for by the strategy, i.e., get the “hands” involved.

Job Four: Build all organizational capabilities required by the strategy, i.e., ensure that the organization is strategy-capable: supportive systems are in place and alignment exists “across the silos.”

In most business organizations, power is concentrated at the top and too often, so is a felt sense of responsibility for results. It’s an artifact of bureaucracy. Without something to intervene, those at the top will be the only ones to feel responsible for translating the strategy into action and getting results. 

Research by Kaplan and Norton (Balanced Scorecard) found in a 2006 study that over 90% of employees did not understand the strategy of their company. In more recent research by Harvard Business Review, by a large margin, those who said they were not involved in creating the strategy of their company reported feeling less responsible for implementing it.

Business people are busy. It’s understandable that an executive would wish to make one presentation about the strategy and hope that all others in the organization will “get on board.” But it doesn’t work that way. To effect changed behavior, you have to communicate, communicate, and then communicate some more. And we’re not speaking of emails here; we’re talking about real dialogue.

To fully “think strategically,” middle managers need skills as well as meaningful dialogue with their leaders. We encourage our clients to kill two birds with one stone: get the dialogue going about the strategy and the need for change in a context where everyone—middle-level leaders and senior leaders—can learn the skills associated with strategy execution.

We conduct a course called “Leading Strategy Execution” that enables participants to learn the skills below. When it’s most powerful, representatives of the senior level kick off the course, generate dialogue about the company strategy, and learn these skills along with the others:

  • Create an executable strategy (they learn what this is and actually create one if they do not have one now)
  • Document their strategy in the form of a Strategy Map
  • Design and implement an organization capable of delivering on the strategy
  • Build an aligned team that will execute the strategy
  • Get all employees on-board
  • Cultivate support for the strategy from all stakeholders