Achieving Leadership Alignment on Corporate Strategy

By: Sumeet Goel

The importance of management team alignment around a company’s selective strategic imperatives is indisputable. A recent HighPoint blog post is a quick read on the reasons why.

With alignment, your implementation will drive the necessary change throughout the organization at an accelerated pace, and as importantly, sustain that change longer-term. Without alignment, achieving buy-in throughout the organization will be impossible, with imperative redefinition, confusion, and miscommunication a likely result.

Let’s start with the reality that achieving strategic alignment is hard. And it should be. Good strategy is decisive and requires both trust and conflict among the leadership team to land on the best, well-refined and debated, three to five strategic imperatives. With the right team makeup, sharpening thinking among that tight group of stakeholders, and committed ownership throughout execution, alignment can be achieved. Here are a few insights on how your company can realize this:

Consider leadership team size and makeup:

HighPoint regularly observes 15-20 person management teams engaged in overall strategic planning and determination of key imperatives. In addition to obvious concerns around C-level spans of control with these structures, this is simply too many to achieve the necessary sharpening and alignment. The ideal core leadership team size is approximately six to eight people. Without this smaller, more intimate group, candor goes out the door: either there are too many voices competing for airtime or team members remain quiet and disengaged when confronted by the difficulty of having meaningful conversations in a room of 20. Either result? Engagement tanks.

When it comes to who should be in the room, core vs. outsider balance and thought diversity are as important as size. HighPoint recommends a mix of Level-1 corporate executives (C-suite) and Level-2 functional and/or business unit leaders, mixing depth of vision and business understanding.

Another critical area of diversity is to ensure the inclusion of leaders who have a deep understanding of the core business, and those who are more recent “outsiders,” bringing extra-industry perspectives that complement the core. Group think is to be avoided, and this balance prevents unchallenged conversation. These “inside- outsiders” bring a valuable and fresh perspective that may balance the institutional understanding of core business leaders. And core business leaders are essential to ensure the all-important central business is not neglected, and any adjacency conversations link to the innate strengths and capabilities of the organization. Regardless of insider or outsider, everyone on the team should be a high-potential talent, ambitious, and concerned about the company’s five-year future, with the energy and engagement level to drive follow-on execution. Leaders who are calcified in their respective areas, or likely to jump ship in a year or two, will not be sufficiently engaged in the alignment conversation. Lastly, which we’ll discuss further below, this senior strategy decisions team must consider their first team to be this group, not the business unit or function they run day-to-day.

Make meetings matter:

Before any gathering of the leadership team, an agenda highlighting key decisions needed and pre-read materials should be distributed a minimum of 24 hours in advance, setting an expectation that all participants come fully prepared with any challenges. At Amazon, everyone comes to their meetings with the pre-read document, and in the first 10 minutes, may (re)read that document silently, before open, ‘disagree and commit’ discussion ensues. Preparation and agendas both ensure the leadership team is capable of participating in robust, sharpening conversations that elicit conflict, build trust, optimize decisive imperatives, and achieve commitment. These prepared, meaningful discussions will also reinforce the leadership team’s identity with one another as their #1 team, rather than their respective business unit silos. An optimized meeting will then culminate with final decision points at least 15 minutes before the end of the meeting (either the meeting chair or the CEO/most senior lead can play this role). This will leave time for follow-on refinements and success metrics discussion, and to affirm full commitment to next steps.

Foster and enforce commitment and accountability:

Without appropriate leadership team makeup and meeting practices, commitment and accountability can be minimal. Assuming these practices are in place, ‘disagree and commit’ ultimately means accountability for execution. It is the final responsibility of the CEO or COO to ensure leadership team accountability to the aligned 3-5 strategic imperatives. This again should reinforce that each member of the leadership team should explicitly understand and accept their first loyalty and accountability to their established leadership team, and not their direct report teams.

With 3-5 strategic imperatives, it is ideal for each and every member of the 6-8 person decision-making team to be assigned to at least one of the identified strategic imperatives, and not necessarily one that is most relevant to that leader’s day-to-day area. If there is an imperative that is monumental and vital to future success, consider assigning your best and brightest senior talent to drive that imperative full-time, shedding their day job with the assurance of a return ticket so they don’t feel displaced from the core business or in a dead-end role. And, while not the focus of this article, ensure you leave adequate time to identify both near-term and long-term metrics of success; the metrics discussion makes the imperatives feel ‘real’ and even uncomfortable to the leadership team, and are a dry run on commitment levels translation. The C-level leader will then host an at least biweekly cadence on each of the imperatives moving forward.

As Bill George and Peter Sims write in their book, True North: Discover Your Authentic Leadership, “The most empowering condition of all is when the entire organization is aligned with its mission, and people’s passions and purpose are in synch with each other.” George and Sims were referring to a company’s core purpose, but this also holds true with adoption of decisive corporate strategy. Simply put, alignment at the organizational level is impossible if alignment and commitment at the leadership level are not accomplished upfront.

Sumeet Goel is the Founder and Managing Director of HighPoint Associates, a strategy consulting firm headquartered in El Segundo, CA. He is dedicated to creating transformational change for HighPoint client partners with a focus on growth that results in measurable, positive outcomes and high rates of client retention. Prior to founding HighPoint in 2002, Sumeet was the head of Strategy & Business Development at an early-stage venture firm that operated at the intersection of tech, media, and entertainment. Before that, he served dozens of clients across industry and functional sectors from McKinsey & Company’s New York and Los Angeles offices. Sumeet holds an M.B.A. from Harvard Business School and a B.S. from the Wharton School of Business.