by Elizabeth Elliott

Organizations are rarely at a loss for ideas or business initiatives, however, many lack the discipline to execute long-term goals and sustain alignment across functional teams and layers within the organization to stay on track. Instead, they often find themselves juggling a long list of initiatives both at the corporate and divisional levels while simultaneously managing day-to-day operations. This conflict usually puts strategic goals at risk as leaders pivot regularly to manage short-term needs.

Layer in unforeseen conditions like global health concerns, supply chain interruptions, labor shortages and political unrest, and it’s a wonder that any business today has time to create and execute against long-term strategic goals. Professionals seem well-versed in conducting off-sites and workshops to identify their strategic long-term plans, but they haven’t embraced the necessary artform involved in executing against them.

IS STRATEGIC MANAGEMENT A BUSINESS SCIENCE OR LEADERSHIP ARTFORM?

It depends. There are three segments to every strategy:

  1. The business plan
  2. The project plan
  3. The communication plan

Creating and articulating the business rational for a strategic plan is traditionally scientific in approach: assess the current state of the business, review the market and competition, identify threats and weaknesses, and align on the best opportunities for growth.

The same case can be made for managing the project plan, where the approach is very methodical: create a time and action schedule, assess resources, assign tasks, and measure progress.

The communication plan, however, is more art than commerce and requires the skill set to not only define a vision for an entire organization but the ability to cascade that vision down to all levels and maintain engagement and commitment over long periods of time.

These three segments culminate into transformation. Unless one is doing the same things over and over again, whether it’s big or small, segments one through three are transforming a company and its organization.

Awareness and understanding that transformation is organically part of a strategy separates the successful from those always spending energy and resources on catching up. To be clear, “organic” doesn’t mean no attention is needed. It’s quite the opposite; the focus on transformation needs to be intentional as it relates to strategy execution.

IF YOU CAN’T ARTICULATE IT, YOU CAN’T IMPLEMENT IT

The art of execution begins with the vision. And the vision is only as clear as the senior leadership team can articulate it. Many long-term plans get derailed at the starting gate because they’re not well-defined. Saying you want to be the preeminent women’s fashion retailer is very different than saying you want to be the brand that delivers the best fitting, highest quality clothing basics for women’s polished casual wardrobes. Both statements may be true intentions, but the former leaves employees unclear as to what needs to happen in order to achieve it. The latter is well-articulated. It clearly defines where the company needs to focus: fit, consistency of fit, textiles and finishes, “wearability,” and style.

The same case can be made when senior leadership defines its vision with general financial growth goals. Compare these statements: “We want to grow our sales by 10 percent and cut our expenses by 5 percent.”

vs.

“We want to grow our sales by 10 percent by expanding our market share in Europe while enhancing our efficiency by reducing shipping and fulfillment costs by 5 percent.”

Simply saying it is not articulating it.

THE 3 MOST IMPORTANT MANDATES FOR ARTFUL EXECUTION

Properly articulating a strategic goal or company vision is the cornerstone for implementing long-term initiatives. To be successful, though, companies need to embrace a platform that includes:

  1. leadership buy-in;
  2. consistent reporting/communication; and
  3. proper resources.

While these mandates sound basic and fundamental, they’re the three biggest pitfalls companies succumb to in achieving their strategic initiatives. Ironically, while senior teams are the members who are responsible for driving and transforming organizations, they’re also subject to distractions and individual/department tangents just like any other employee. Leadership buy-in is more than aligning on the critical goals; it’s a sustained commitment of excitement and engagement throughout execution. Many organizations start out strong, but initiatives can easily be diluted once day-to-day issues re-enter the workday. It’s the responsibility of leadership to make sure that the long-term transformative goals aren’t overshadowed. If it remains important to the senior team, it will remain important to the entire organization.

Consistent reporting and ongoing timely communication are the second mandate for artful execution. Again, this sounds like a given, but is often subject to becoming minimized as an initiative moves forward. What starts with a company-wide town hall can easily be diluted to quarterly performance reports that aren’t as grand or as spectacular. Communication of strategic goals and sharing status on progress can be a great source of pride for the entire organization. It’s during these moments that all employees feel a sense of value and success, knowing they’re contributing to the growth of the company.

What does effective communication look like? It’s more than posters in a breakroom or a blurb on the company intranet. Transformative and strategic initiatives require weaving the vision into every aspect of the organization — from annual meetings to daily stand-ups. Collateral in physical work spaces may be one dimension of the communication plan, but hybrid workforces are yielding this to be less influential. Instead, leaders need to look to technology and other means to connect with employees. Whether they’re hosting virtual meetings or in-person staff meetings, leaders need to keep key initiatives on the agenda to keep them top of mind. They need to check in with teams proactively to anticipate any potential risks or issues and to offer aid/resolution as necessary. Leaders also owe it to their teams to hold cross-functional leads accountable and to share their progress so that the entire organization realizes that it’s interdependent and reliant on each other for success.

The last mandate for the success of artful execution is to assign a transformative lead and make sure the organization is properly staffed for the initiative(s). This isn’t a part-time position for a full-time employee; rather, it’s a dedicated resource whose sole responsibility is to partner with leadership, project teams and individual department heads who are shouldering the initiative. This lead needs a supported “seat at the table” and needs direct access to the CEO and senior C-suite teams. This access will allow leadership to be honestly informed and empower the transformation lead to elevate needs and share where they need senior influence to keep the initiative top of mind and on track. In addition to the transformation lead, careful consideration and resource investments need to be made within the organization to make sure incremental work can be sufficiently executed. Creating more work for the same teams will result in long-term goals being sacrificed for short-term tasks.

SKILLS FOR TRANSFORMATIVE LEADERS

It goes without saying that successful transformation requires strong leadership. Making sure you have the right senior team with the right executive skills is an imperative. First and foremost, leaders need to be able to understand the impact of the initiative — both within their individual areas and across the organization.

Second, they need the capability to keep teams engaged for a sustained period of time while managing daily activities.

Third, leaders need the ability to sustain the prioritization of goals and allocate time and resources to ensure success. It’s also important for the senior team to remain committed to one another and provide honest feedback and transparency so they can operate as a unit and anticipate roadblocks in order to support one another and course correct when obstacles do arise.

IT TAKES A C-SUITE

The art of execution is just that: artfully articulating, communicating, enabling, supporting and managing key transformational initiatives from the C-suite to the organization. Balancing long-term goals with short-term tasks is not a new dilemma for organizations, but it has surfaced as a new priority. Retailers and companies in general have encountered unprecedented times that now require unprecedented commitments to lead their businesses through domestic turmoil, systems and supply disruptions, and economic and global conflicts. While no organization can predict the future or anticipate impending external circumstances, they can create a road map that continues to innovate the company so that they rely less on reactionary behaviors and more on transformative execution.

* This article was republished from Women In Retail.

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