Lessons in leadership often come when you least expect them. I helped a small growing organization orchestrate a process to stand up an executive team. Prior to this process the Executive Director was driving nearly all the organizations decision-making herself. This approach no longer served the organization’s needs, and she wanted to invest in the next level of leadership. In the shift from orchestrating to implementing the restructuring, I also shifted from consultant to coach. In shifting my role, I asked more questions to support members of the new executive team embrace and own their new roles.
In one particular coaching call with one of the new executive team members, I offered the metaphor of conducting an orchestra for leading at the executive team level. The leader struggled with this idea. In the moment she said she had much too much to do to worry about being a conductor. A few days later her email said she had all the experience she needed to be a good leader, and she didn’t have the time to consider being a conductor or continue working with me. That was last time I heard from her, and not long after, she was no longer employed at that organization.
There are many lessons from this conversation. One lesson was that not every metaphor works for every leader. Another lesson was the shift from doing at the management level to guiding at the executive team level can be a significant adjustment. And a third lesson was planning, like the kind that’s required before conducting, is not every leaders’ core competency and some leaders just plain resist it. However, in the nearly 100 strategic planning processes we have had the joy of facilitating; we have yet to see one where the most engaged leaders weren’t the most engaged conductors.
In leadership Nugget #49 Part 1 of this series, we explored multiple intersections where leadership and strategic planning meet in the design of a transformational planning process. We explored creating an expansive space for strategic thinking by inviting cross-organizational participation and external stakeholders to be actively engaged in the process. And we explored the importance of leading with frequent communication about the unfolding process. Here in Part 2, we consider leadership opportunities in gathering input from diverse sources and developing implementation plans.
If you’ve been involved in strategic planning, you know that a big part is discovering new perspective. CEOs/Executive Directors can contribute to this discovery step in a variety of ways. One effective way – especially for leaders who are new to their roles – is to go on a “listening tour”. During a “listening tour” leaders interview leaders from partner organizations as well as various leaders and other stakeholders who may not know their organization well, but who can bring new points of view. Another way is to read and summarize key industry reports. And still another way is to involve both board members and staff in a SOAR analysis. In this analysis, participants look inside and outside the organization to identify strengths, opportunities, aspirations and results that could be possible. In looking at the organization environment through this appreciative lens, leaders can reframe limitations and challenges into opportunities for attention.
Once an organization makes key strategic decisions about direction, goals, objectives and success measures another important step is building an action implementation plan. This is an important step for leaders to use to insure the strategic plan is implemented and used to guide the organization. We recommend starting with a 12-18 month action plan and expanding it by a year annually through the life of the plan. Some organizations prefer to do action planning before a strategic plan is approved by the Board of Directors. This helps the organization develop an appreciation for the full cost of implementation and the capacity the organization needs to make the plan a success. Other organizations prefer that the Board approve the plan in concept and then direct the staff to develop implementation plans based on available annual resources. The choice of approach is often influenced by organization history, aspirations of organization leaders and the strategic issues facing the organization. Again, an effective inclusive approach to action planning is to invite cross-organizational work groups to develop the ideas for the action plans that they will ultimately be responsible for implementing.
In our experience, cross-functional work groups are becoming increasingly popular for the value of the results they produce. While these work groups have been in favor for quite a while, we often hear about the silos within organizations and the challenges these programmatic or departmental silos present. Herein lies another leadership opportunity because depending on the group makeup, these groups need the support of a confident leader to encourage their work. Leaders often come to new work groups with fears such as “will I know enough, will I be accepted, and will anyone listen to me?” In fact these fears can creep in anytime in a planning process. Confident, trusting leaders can help mitigate these concerns, reframing these fears as opportunities to have new stretching experiences that build trust and confidence in emerging leaders.
Strategic planning is not just an exercise in deciding the direction of an organization, its goals, and its implementation plans. Strategic planning is an organizational leadership opportunity. Individually, every participant in the process can influence the process with a positive mindset, willingness to listen and embrace others’ ideas, and being thoughtful and creative about how those ideas are used in the plan. Then, once the plan is adopted, success in implementing it comes from an array of staff and volunteer leaders motivating themselves, working collaboratively, and being agile enough to make adjustments in the plan overtime.
When we hear that an organization developed a strategic plan but never implemented it this raises two leadership questions. One question is what happened in the strategic planning process that resulted in a plan being approved by leaders that they weren’t excited and energized to implement? The second question is what prevented leaders from using the approved plan as the organization’s guiding framework. The strategic choices leaders make are the difference between a strategic plan gathering dust on the shelf or a strategic plan being used as the organization’s energizing guide.
Perhaps now is a good time to take stock. How well is your organization’s current strategic plan serving as a guiding framework? What is the opportunity in 2017 to refresh a current plan, or to undertake comprehensive planning to shape a new direction? How can you use strategic planning as a framework for developing your own leadership and that of other leaders?
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