Given change is the constant now and people are reacting in a normal and dynamic manner to it, leaders at all levels need to routinely engage in strategic level dialogues with their people in order to create the continuous clarity and focus they desire. The challenge is that few people understand what is a strategic level dialogue and why it is important.
In the beginning, think of a strategic level dialogue as a free flowing conversation about context, strategy and operational excellence. The goal is to help people improve their capacity to build, define, share, and engage at more strategic and holistic levels. When employees better understand the why and how elements rather than just the what to do next elements of their job, they can then make new and better strategic choices and transform those choices into consistent communication and action at both the strategic and operational levels.
Nevertheless, many executives and leaders say they are too busy to spend time visiting with people about such topics. Now I know that many of them are getting caught in the trap that things are more important than people, but few recognize that the time spent visiting with people in a strategic level dialogue allows their colleagues and partners to better transform awareness and understanding into commitment and responsibility.
Still, I can hear someone in a management and supervisory position telling me that it would just be easier to simply tell people the strategy rather to engage in a dialogue about it. Here, I refer them back to the work of James Belasco and Ralph Stayer from their book, Flight of the Buffalo: Soaring to Excellence, Learning to Let Employees Lead. As they wrote, "The primary purpose of strategic planning is not to strategically plan for the future, although that's an important purpose of the exercise. It is primarily to develop the strategic management mind-set in each and every individual in the organization. The purpose of the process is not only to produce a plan. It is to produce a plan that will be owned and understood by the people who have to execute it."
We as leaders have to recognize that in most companies there are two operating systems functioning every day, i.e. one for day to day business and one for the design and implementation of strategy. It is the second one that is focused on the continual development and communication of strategy. This is the one that will create a strategic mindset, the unification of understanding about context, strategy and operational excellence. When this takes place, we have the potential for creating more strategic ownership.
So, how do we actually do a strategic level dialogue? First, it can happen any time and any where. Over coffee or over food, the key is to start with some excellent questions. I like the following slightly modified ones from Robert Simons’ article called “Stress-Test Your Strategy: The 7 Questions to Ask,” the November 2010 issue of the Harvard Business Review. As he wrote:
- Who is our primary customer?
- What critical performance variables are we tracking?
- Are they making a difference in the quality of our actions?
- How committed are our employees to helping each other?
- What strategic uncertainties keep you awake at night?
Once you have asked the questions, listen carefully to the answers. As the late Stephen Covey reminded us, “seek first to understand and second to be understood.” Build a common ground and perspective, and remember to connect everything back to the strategic nexus.
Given constant change is the new normal, now is the time to hold more strategic dialogues. Remember: you need to have more clarity rather than less clarity in your organization at this time period.