BY TOM COX
CEOs often have senior leaders who don’t “get a seat at the strategy table.” These are usually Directors or VPs who oversee support functions — this happens most notoriously with directors of HR and IT. It’s a tremendous lost opportunity, and it’s almost entirely the fault of the CEO.
Fortunately, most non-strategic top leaders are actually capable of providing strategic impact — if you push them correctly.
What does a “non-strategic” leader look like?
Well, consider Carol. She came up through the ranks of HR, first as a generalist, then as a team leader. When her boss unexpectedly left, she became HR Director. Carol spends her time micromanaging her staff, and badgering her peers about HR paperwork. Carol complains that she doesn't have a seat at the strategy table. In reality, nobody in senior leadership thinks she’s capable of contributing to strategy.
To Carol, a good month is a month when all of the hiring paperwork is done correctly, when payroll runs smoothly, and nobody needs to get disciplined.
Contrast Carol with another HR Director, Randy. Randy had identical career path to Carol but at a different firm, where Randy does sit on the strategy team.
To Randy, a good month is a month when all new hires are a 90% or better fit to the job- and personality-profiles of the opening, when payroll is done perfectly and at a slightly lower cost than the month before, and every front-line supervisor gets high ranks in their leadership assessments.
A good CEO can turn a Carol into a Randy in three steps.
Step One – Require Strategic Awareness
An effective CEO expects and requires everyone reporting to her to understand that the company strategy. This is remarkably easy to test — at your next leadership meeting, takes 60 seconds to have everyone write down on piece of paper the top three strategic needs of the company, from their point of view. Collect them and review them later.
You will learn two interesting things. First, you’ll discover all of the things that you were not thinking about, that other people think are strategic. Second, you’ll discover how badly you've been communicating your strategic vision.
Go out and re-communicate your strategic vision. Keep quizzing people until they get it right.
Step Two – Require Understanding of Strategic Impact
In a few weeks, take 90 seconds from a leadership meeting to have everyone write down the top three strategic needs of the company, and how their department is addressing each one. Collect them and review them later.
Now you’ll discover whether or not each member of your leadership team considers themselves to be engaged in supporting the strategy. Many of them will think they are addressing a strategic need, but are doing so in a way that may be ineffective, or at cross purposes with other team members.
This will also reveal to you how well you've been leading over the past year. The results here are normally quite ugly, so be gentle on yourself.
This is the stage where Randy and Carol are completely different. Nothing carol was worried about was strategic. Everything Randy was worried about was strategic.
Carol’s concern, that the hiring paperwork be correct, is nothing more than the cost of admission — everybody should have that. That is at heart an operational detail. You can have perfect paperwork, and hire the wrong person. Randy’s concern, that the higher be a good fit, was strategic.
Carol again is only concerned about accuracy — operationally vital, but does nothing to move the strategic ball forward. Randy has recognized that payroll is a function that must be executed perfectly, and that should be subjected to lean thinking — minutes and dollars should be continually squeezed out of this function, and the savings fed into customer facing activities.
Discipline and Leadership
Carol is simply trying to avoid negative discipline. Randy is taking responsibility for ensuring that front line leaders get the training they need to keep morale high. Good front line leadership is a predictor of both operational excellence and high strategic performance.
Step Three – Require Strategic Engagement
The effective CEO does not allow a senior leader to hold back from having strategic impact. Once you have assessed each persons strategic awareness, you will know whether each one is a Carol or a Randy.
At your next leadership meeting, assign each direct report to give you a one-page summary of how their department is going to impact each of the top three strategic needs of the company. In some cases, the correct answer will be “we won’t” but in most cases there will be some way they can move the ball forward.
If they have an existing program, tell them to come up with metrics for measuring its effectiveness. If they don’t have an existing program, have them come up with three suggestions and one recommendation, and once you've agreed on one, have them come up with metrics.
At this point, you may need to get them some training, outside support, or other help. The one thing you must not do is let them off the hook.
If, with encouragement, they can step up to this expectation, you just turned your Carol into a Randy. (If they cannot, you've hired the wrong person, and you need to replace them.)