Maneuver and Values-Based Leadership in Business

Interactive forum for the exchange of ideas pertaining to: the experiences of the change management consulting and hands-on leadership training firm, Santamaria & Martino LLC and the message of our book, The Marine Corps Way, which applies military strategy and leadership to business

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Tuesday, July 05, 2005

THE PLAN: Everyone Formulates; Few Communicate

In the recently-released Making Strategy Work, Wharton professor Lawrence G. Hrebiniak surveyed 443 executives and found that the number-one problem they face when executing strategy is the inability to manage change effectively or to overcome internal resistance to change. Furthermore, subsequent investigation and panel discussions placed culture at the core of many change-related problems: "to many of the respondents, 'change' and 'culture change' were synonymous" (p18).

This posting, which addresses improving downward communications in an organization, is the first in a three-part series on how we helped a consulting client effect major cultural change. Next month, we will discuss formulating a meaningful set of core values. And the following month, we will describe the creation of a system for the tiered recognition of superior achievement.

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An interesting self-admission that we hear from all of our seminar and consulting clients is that they do a poor job of communicating the plans they formulate. Below, we describe how we helped the senior leaders of a 300-member organization formulate and communicate their plans downward, through multiple levels of the organization. With each “cascading” communication, the message narrowed in scope and increased in relevance – so that ultimately the most junior individual contributors understood the larger context into which their efforts fit.

The Challenge

The senior leaders – General Manager, Vice President, and Directors – of this organization spent a good deal of time & energy formulating strategic and operational plans, but they did not invest a comparable amount of time & energy in communicating those plans to their mid-level and front-line personnel. Accordingly, their communications attenuated as they passed down through the ranks: quarterly and annual outlooks became increasingly cloudy, customer needs became less apparent, and tasks became increasingly discrete. Individual contributors felt as if they were “working in a vacuum” in constant “react mode.”

How We Solved It

Institutionalized the concept of “commander’s intent”. We challenged all levels of management to restructure the communication of their plans so that each communication explained: 1) what needed to be accomplished rather than how, 2) customer needs and why they should be addressed, and 3) how each plan fit within the context of the plans of higher levels of management. We also began posting select communications of “commander’s intent” (presentations, memos, etc.) on the company intranet, so that all members of the organization could access them at will.

Ensured that “commander’s intent” cascaded downward, through the entire organization. The General Manger began sending weekly e-mails that shared his thoughts & impressions and described recent customer developments. The Vice President convened an “all hands” meeting in which he 1) laid out his intent (“creativity and ingenuity”) and the goals & objectives necessary to realize it, 2) addressed all of the upward feedback he had been receiving over the previous six months, and 3) challenged his Directors to do the same. After a first-ever collaborative planning effort, Directors followed the Vice President’s presentation with an “all hands” meeting of their own, in which they laid out their respective intents and their progress towards his goals and objectives. And mid-level managers sat down with their respective teams and held hour-long “teach-ins”, in which they conveyed their personal philosophies and expectations. Importantly, these efforts were never-ending: managers at all levels seized every possible opportunity to reinforce their intent and “sell” their teams on the merits of their respective plans – not only through their words but also through their actions.

Lessons Learned and Prescriptions

While our solution was not particularly earth shattering, the commitment made to the communication of plans was an all-important first step toward cultural change in the organization. Expanding the sphere of understanding of employees at all levels boosted both morale and initiative. Directors and mid-level managers could make decisions with greater certainty, and individual contributors could allocate their time and efforts more effectively. Individual contributors and mid-level managers perceived senior leaders as more receptive to new ideas and thus began offering invaluable insights and suggestions for improvement. And by making additional information available to their teams, managers were able to ask for increased levels of personal responsibility and accountability in return.

From this experience, we can make the following generalizations:

  • Make the communication of your plan to your people a top priority, and do not shy from challenging them to “step up” in return
  • You can’t order your people to take initiative, but you can motivate them by arming them with the “bigger picture”
  • Ensure that “commander’s intent” narrows in scope and increases in relevance as it cascades down through your organization
  • The reinforcement of your intent – through words and actions – is a never-ending responsibility, exasperating as it may be
  • “Never tell your people how to do things; tell them what to do, and they will surprise you with their ingenuity” – General George S. Patton

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