One of the most important things leaders do is to create a vision and then execute on it. Given that many organizations are in their strategic planning phase right now, I thought it would be a good idea to discuss what it takes to succeed in this critical task.
Unlike others in an organization, leaders must take not only an internal, operations point of view, they must also keep their eyes focused externally. As we’ll see, this internal/external focus lies at the heart of effective strategy formulation.
In my work with leaders over the past 20 years, I’ve found that when it comes to formulating and then executing on a strategy, great leaders do three things particularly well:
1. They create the space in their heads for the new thinking that’s required of strategic planning. This makes room for a new strategic plan to evolve.
2. They make the connections with the right people, not only to further evolve the strategic plan, but also to set the stage for execution.
3. They mold their plan into a vision—a story—and then they share the story in a way that captures the hearts and minds of the entire organization.
Let’s look at each of these functions in turn. There are so many ways that leaders clear space in their heads and allow their thinking to be informed and inspired. Which approach leaders choose has a lot to do with how their psychic energy flows, starting with how they get informed about the world at large.
In previous posts, I’ve described the difference between leaders who are predominantly informed from the outside world (extraversion) and those who look to their own inner world (introversion). The outside world has many ways to inform leaders: networking, outside advisors and mentors, and published news in any medium. The inner world tends to rely more on one’s own reflections, writing, philosophical readings, and meditation practices. Regardless of one’s preference for extraversion or introversion, leaders typically find that they need the ability to look both outward and inward.
We learn about the world in proportion to the number of sources open to us. John Chambers, longtime CEO of Cisco, has talked about how important it was to read publications outside the technology space. He would read magazines that focused on industries and businesses completely unrelated to his world in order to get fresh and different insights about bringing value and service to customers. In other words, leaders must not only create the mental space for new thinking, they also need to expose that space to ideas that lie outside their comfort zone. And the result of this creating the space function is an outline of the leader’s strategic thinking; sometimes it’s written down, sometimes it’s just in the leader’s head.
The making the connections function involves testing the reality of the new thinking. This is where the pedal hits the metal. Being tested by a few trusted followers who themselves find ways to stay open to the new thinking—this is the crucial inflection point that every vision must pass through if it is to become a reality.
How you choose to make these connections is often a reflection of the source of your psychic energy (extraversion or introversion). However you make the connection, it’s important to seek out people you trust and people who will challenge your thinking.
One of the young leaders I work with, who had launched a very successful technology consulting practice, found that success depended on scaling the operation. He hired some “older folks” with experience in growing a company to a very large size. Though their thinking was quite different from his, their perspective was invaluable.
Excellence in the sharing the story function is often what separates the best leaders from those who are merely average. Organizations need to be sold on why the new direction makes sense for the company; individuals in the company also need to be convinced that the new direction will be a boon for their jobs and careers.
The story that you create is like a thread that weaves through all aspects of the execution process, from start to finish. It’s important because it’s what people fall back on when they think “Why am I doing this?” Even though you may have spent days, weeks, or even months crafting the vision, remember that your people will be hearing it for the first time. So in telling the story, tell it in a compelling manner—and tell it frequently.
The Action Plan:
• What do you do to create space in your mind to think about the future of your business and your life of leading?
• What characterizes the relationship you have with the key people you choose to rely on in bringing your ideas forward?
• Think of a story that once moved you and compare it to how that message might have been communicated if it hadn’t been in the form of a story.