How to Make Strategy Stick in Tough Times

Job cuts. Restructuring. Retrenchment. Overnight these words have entered the corporate vocabulary. The big question keeping leaders awake at night is how to keep their people "with" them on this rollercoaster ride of uncertainty?

Often called alignment; engagement or buy in, this is not necessarily easy at the best of times. In the worst of times, when the people who "remain" post restructuring need to do the job of two or three; forsake their bonus; may even earn less, "alignment" is a big ask. Ironically it is in this very moment that employees' morale can make a business sink or swim.

 So how do leaders make their "not-so-sexy-anymore" strategy stick? (A "sticky" strategy, by the way, is one which employees 1. know, 2. "get" - have internalized - and 3. can deliver).

It would seem that the following three factors are critical determinants of a "sticky strategy" in every circumstance - if SA's leadership cognoscenti are anything to go by.

Simplicity rules

First and foremost it is about simplicity:

"Instead of spending time in lengthy strategy breakaway sessions which often serve only to make things more complex - work at making your strategy simple and rather spend your time making sure everyone gets it" says Con Fauconnier, founding CEO of Kumba Resources.

Simplicity means boiling the strategy down to its essentials so that everyone from the executive to the shop floor gets it and talks about it. Could your employees summarize what your business aims to achieve and their part in it on the back of a coaster over drinks with a friend? If you need to call in the consultants, roll out the PowerPoint graphs or haul down the strategy tome from the top shelf - you may be missing the point and sadly your employees will be too.

Make disciples

Secondly it's about identifying your "strategy disciples" and building relationships with them. Mark Lamberti, founder and chairman of retail powerhouse Massmart emphasises that "the job of leadership is to know your people and build relationships with them. By doing this you make them see the link between their individual dreams and aspirations and the company's purpose and strategy."

Derick Kruger CEO of Bedrock Mining Support says: "I believe in spending a lot of time making disciples...To this end I have worked closely with my executive team for over 10 years and we know each other really well. This enables me to be a more effective leader. "

Brian Kennedy of Nedbank Capital outlines the benefit of building solid relationships at the top: " We spend an enormous amount of time and effort on executive alignment. I think at first we may have been skeptical but on reflection that process of getting to know ourselves and each other has developed our relationships to such an extent that we have been able to work together to solve problems and overcome challenges much more effectively than before. The result is that we have a common language. It's not about fancy events or how much money we spend...there's nowhere to hide if we haven't internalised it...employees will see straight through it."

Strategy should be a meaningful dialogue about the future and how you plan to get there. It's not a presentation, it's a conversation. Research consistently shows that we only "get" the message once we have asked questions, and applied it to our situation - only then will we consider altering our behavior. Making three or four strategy disciples may seem too much work for too little payoff. But consider the impact of 100% alignment of three or four key influencers (disciples) as opposed to 1% "alignment" among 1000 employees.

Creativity breaks through the clutter

The third critical success factor in making your strategy stick is creativity:

Creativity helps leaders break through the clutter and engage people. Richard Friedland, CEO of Netcare suggest that it is not enough to be creative with how you package your strategy message - but also advises innovation in terms of "channel" or medium:

"Be unexpected with media. We use MMS messages and computer screen pop ups. The challenge is to keep it interesting, not get too gimmicky, and also put effort into the "not good news" messages."

No less than Jeffrey Immelt CE of GE talks about creativity as a key ingredient of successful leadership:

....we're measuring our leaders on how imaginative they are. Imaginative leaders are the ones who have the courage to fund new ideas, lead teams to discover better ideas, and lead people to take more educated risks....

Creativity makes your strategy stick because it gets your employees' attention, makes your message stand out and enhances the chances that it will be remembered. It is not a nice-to-have. It is a vital tool of leadership - especially in tough times.

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