There’s a simple truth to the way people work — like horses with blinders on, we focus on what is in front of us. In the busy-ness of the day-to-day, we lose sight of “why” we are there. Ideas like purpose, vision, mission — they sound great when we hear them, but we forget them.
The same is true of strategic plan rollouts, digital transformation efforts, and major change initiatives — you hold a rip-roaring kickoff or an amazing offsite and people go back to their regular jobs without any real changes. I bet that three days after such events, very few of your team members will remember the strategic imperatives that you put forth. What a waste…and more importantly, what wasted potential for alignment.
Here’s an a real example of that happening. I participated in a marketing department offsite of a Fortune 500 company and at the end of the day the CMO came in to do a Q&A with the team. I asked the basic question, “What are your strategic objectives for the year?” She smiled broadly and shared that the team in the room had spent significant time at the start of the year working on that plan. “Let them tell you what the objectives are.”
A long, awkward silence followed.
To the shock of the CMO and the embarrassment of the team members, they couldn’t recall the strategic objectives. Not a single objective. Some frantically searched their laptops for the presentation while others fumbled around, offering guesses. “Grow our accounts?” “Be more efficient?” While this highly capable team of marketers were doing their individual jobs well, they were not working together to achieve aligned objectives.
Having worked with hundreds of leaders and companies, I’ve observed that we spend an inordinate amount of time putting the “right” plan together. But we spend a minuscule amount of time making sure it sticks and changes our behavior.
I think one of the biggest reasons is that as leaders, we are self-conscious about repeating ourselves too often. After all, do you want to hear from your manager or board member every time you see them, “Let’s review our purpose, mission, and top three objectives?”
Actually, I bet you do want to hear that from your leaders, or get affirmation from your board that this is a good thing to do. Because after all, who else is going to remind everyone of the “why” of our work? Who else will carry this burden? If not you, then who?
One of my favorite examples of an executive who does this well is LinkedIn CEO Jeff Weiner. He’s famous (maybe infamous?) for repeating LinkedIn’s purpose and values every time he meets someone or starts a meeting. And I’m not kidding — I’ve known Jeff for a long time, seen him in multiple situations, and he almost always begins, “I’m Jeff Weiner, the CEO of LinkedIn, where our propose is to connect the world’s professionals.” He does it so much that an employee once asked him when he would stop repeating the purpose and mission all the time. Jeff responded, “I’ll stop when people stop looking surprised.”
And that’s the key. I guarantee you that the people on your team will look surprised. They will be reminded of the “why” of what they do everyday, and adjust what they do later to align their work with the organization’s objectives. They will have deeper context and understanding of what they contribute to the mission of your organization.
Ready to take on the “rinse and repeat challenge”? Here’s your task — find ways to work your purpose and values, or strategic objective, or change initiative into EVERY conversation. Not just once a day or to a specific audience, but to everyone all the time.
Am I serious about doing this for every conversation? Absolutely. Because if you are doing something where your top priorities aren’t relevant to bring up, then you should ask yourself if you should be doing that thing at all. You’ll remind yourself of what is important and also remind everyone in your ecosystem — employees, customers, even partners — of the top priorities.
Here are three tips to make this challenge easier:
- Ask questions. When getting information or making decisions, ask how it helps us achieve our objectives, which you helpfully reiterate. Or point out that an idea aligns with one of the priorities and ask how it can be improved to accelerate achieving that objective. Posing your queries in the context of strategic objectives helps focus the discussion on what’s important.
- Share stories. Keep a running log of customer success stories or employee heroics that illustrate the impact of your priorities. One CFO I worked with constantly shared stories of how new accounting procedures were making an impact on customers and other departments — in person, via email, and via video on the company Intranet. He made what would normally be a very boring accounting procedure into a team building activity where others started sharing videos and supporting the change as well.
- Ignore the doubt. You may feel silly, but try simply stating the priorities at the start of the meeting. “Before we start, I just wanted to remind ourselves of our top priorities with the hope that they will help focus our discussion and decisions.” As you restate the priorities, look around the table, and you’ll see affirmation in the faces of your team members that the reminder is useful and will be used. Keep that picture of affirmation in your mind as motivation to continue sharing.