Why Your Business (or any Organization) Needs a Strategic Plan

Far too often, we boil leadership down to bite a sized quotable. Over every social media platform, you see brilliant quotes from the leading influencers of the moment or of the great leaders of the past.  I have shared many quotes that speak to me and will most likely continue to do so in the hope that they will inspire others to action.  After all, that is what a leader does, inspires action.  But leadership is far more complicated than a great one-liner from Marcus Aurelius or John Maxwell.  Leading is hard.  There is endless criticism (from inside and outside of your organization), tremendous pressure to perform, and endless amounts of problems to solve.

That is why it is vital to have a plan for your organization.  A solid strategic plan will help reduce the pressure from you and the leaders of your organization. So how does a strategic plan help in this way?  First, when I work with a business or organization, we establish its reason for existing.  The leadership team must determine the reason the organization exists and ensure it has real implications for how they will make decisions moving forward.  Then we work on values.  Not just generic values that we wish to work towards, but a clear set of current values that describe “who” the organization really is.  This work is vital to ensure the organization knows who it is and why it does what it does. Doing these steps and a few other pieces will establish the initial foundation for the essential strategic work.

Next, we can work on differentiating the organization.  Or to put more plainly, identifying the few strategic guidelines that the organization will use to make decisions. For example, maybe the team determines that it has a “flat” and agile administrative process that their customers appreciate and regularly compliment.  The leadership team would then need to ensure that future decisions should protect this “flat” organizational structure at significant costs!  Any processes that the organization implements should be tailored to fit its flat and agile administrative process.  Doing so will keep the unique advantage.  But if the team did not identify this as a strategic advantage, they may inadvertently lose an essential aspect of what makes their business great. Lastly, we work on organizational priorities and organizational roles.

Once you have worked through this process, you will be able to communicate your vision to your people.  The ability to increase communication and bring your team together and get them on the same page is immeasurable.  Everyone will know what the priorities are, everyone will know what the leadership team is using to base their decisions on, and it will align the entire organization. 

A solid strategic plan will make implementing objective tracking systems much easier.  Anything from OKRs (Objectives & Key Results) to a Balanced Scorecard are great ways to keep track of who is working on what and how you are going to achieve your key objectives. 

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Leadership is Uncomfortable

If you are doing it right, leadership is uncomfortable. Not in a weird, creepy way, but in an “I have to do things I don’t want to do kind of way.”  These “things” are different for everyone, but every leader has things they have to do that make them uncomfortable.  I think if we are honest with ourselves we mostly uncomfortable with the same few things.  We all know that getting outside of what makes us comfortable is vital for a leader but being honest about this and talking about these times will make it easier to step outside that comfort zone.  The few things I get uncomfortable with or at least give me some level of anxiety are below.

Making decisions.  I have no issues making a decision.  I rarely, if ever, get analysis paralysis, or make premature decisions.  I think I’m an above average at critical thinking.  But even with high self-confidence, I still get uncomfortable making decisions.  I want to make the right one, I know I will make mistakes, but what kind of mistake will I make and what cost will that mistake incur?   Will it hurt the people that work for me?  Will my decision set my organization back to a place that was even before I made the decision?  Time will be lost, but will that lost time be worth it?  The big thing with making decisions is to realize that you will make a mistake, you will screw it up from time to time.  But as long as you recognize these moments early and learn from them, the lost time is not wasted.  It is time well spent because you learned and will apply it the next time you face that situation.

Tough conversations (confrontation). Talking to your boss about their toxic behavior, telling a coworker they smell bad and need to shower, telling someone you like that they are doing a lousy job, or firing them.  These are all very uncomfortable situations, and they never get better.  The hardest for me is to tell your peer or your supervisor that they are making a mistake or doing something that is causing a problem.  It is especially tricky when you know they will react poorly to your input.  The best way to handle this is to provide many examples and do your best to be gentle.  Taking criticism is hard but getting into a match of who makes the most mistakes will not help the situation.  Give them an opportunity to respond to the criticism, but don’t get involved in a back and forth about who does what.  If they want to talk about your behavior, tell them that you are more than willing to discuss it after you have resolved the current issue.  Being calm and reasonable is usually the best way to deal with the confrontation.

Pressure to perform.  Let’s face it; performance is why you get paid.  A leader is responsible for tasks that they are not actually going to do.  You have to ensure people do well and to do that you must make sure the processes are there to support high-quality work.  This, above all, is uncomfortable.  How do you get people to perform at a high level?  How do you get them to want to do the tedious work and do it every day?  Everywhere and every job is different, but listening to your people is the first step, having high standards, feeding confidence to your people and holding them accountable is a great start.  Work hard and be deliberate in your actions and you will do great.

 

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The Death of Fun at Work

What is it with some managers?  Why do they hate fun?  Anytime they hear about a quick basketball game, game of cards, or anything that doesn’t contribute directly to the result the employees are hired for; they freak out.  Have they forgotten where they came from?  Have they lost perspective about how mundane work can get?

Now, I’m sure many of you are thinking, “I don’t let my people waste time.”  What I say is, I believe some time spent messing around and having fun is a good use of time.  Of course, many professions do not fit in with this theory, a surgeon probably doesn’t have time to stop a play a quick game of hearts, but we all know of those work environments where it is possible.

The key to this is good leadership.  But more than just good leadership, we have to evaluate the reasons these managers see only a waste of time.  They are not concerned about morale; they are not concerned for their people’s lives; they seem only to be concerned with completing work.  But not just work getting done but being done perfectly.  These managers find it so easy to tear apart anything.  Have a problem employee take a few steps in a positive direction? Nope, they will remind you of the times they made mistakes.  Even when they do good, there are usually times when they have made mistakes and these managers will remember.

It becomes such a pain for other managers to fight against the “fun-less” managers that we do avoid the fight far more often than we would probably admit.  There is plenty of evidence to support the position that happy employees do better and more work.  And fun at work is one way to make employees happy.  Fun at work is not the priority.  High-quality performance, efficient processes, discipline, accountability are all much more important than fun at work.  But when these things are happening, when you have a good work environment, it’s time to throw the football or break out the jump rope and have fun.

Unfortunately, I have not figured out a great way to change these managers.  Most of the time, they will continue to be a negative influence on the organization’s people until they either quit or retire.  They can be great operationally and still hurt the organization because they are poor leaders.  My tactic is to be relentless with progress.  I never stop my message and consistently come up with ways to try to push them in the direction of fun.  Little by little without them even realizing, they will change.  Small steps, which are barely even perceptible, will make a huge difference over time.  Yes, this is hard, but in the end, it is worth it to your people.

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It’s Not Just Business

How many times have we heard the term, “It’s nothing personal, just business.”? It is in music, movies, and ingrained into our general culture. The problem is business is personal. We invest in them with money, sweat, tears, and time. Many personal sacrifices go into our businesses or our work. So how can it not be personal and what do you do about it? The answer is simple: Grow a thick skin and take things personally. ​

This most certainly does not happen overnight, it is not easy, but it is crucial. People’s criticism, although sometimes hurtful, is feedback and feedback is essential to business regardless of what the business is. Even outside of business it is vital.  An individuals performance will rarely improve without feedback. 69% of employees state if they are given feedback they will work harder and are better because of it. Most of this is because they know they are being observed and that people care about them and the work they are doing.

If you are the author of a blog, you will be criticized (trust me on this one). If you own and run an ice cream shop, you will be criticized (probably less than the blog).  If you invent a time-machine, you will be criticized. There will always be someone who is critical of you and your work. The point is to accept that you will be criticized and keep doing your thing. Do not let it deter you from your cause. There is no doubt this is much easier said than done and I struggle with this myself. But if you identify it as something worthwhile, and are deliberate about getting better at it, then it can be done.

I used to believe a good feedback mechanism was 360-degree feedback.  I still think it is a great idea, but a much too “the world is full of rainbows” idea.  People are very bad at taking feedback from superiors, let alone from subordinates or peers.  In order to implement a 360-degree feedback system in your organization, you would need to spend significant time working through the culture to get the leaders of the organization to accept the feedback.  Most likely, this approach would cause resentment from the subordinates because they would feel like their feedback is ignored.  Regardless of your feedback method, if you do it enough and force yourself to evaluate what people tell you, you will grow a thick skin with it you will be able to take feedback from random strangers or customers.

 

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