Most professionals will have horror stories from previous organisations (or perhaps even their existing organisation) of poor leadership and decision-making de-railing a particular plan or having a negative impact on organisational culture, with some excellent people as casualties.
The reality is that in most organisations, senior decision makers do not often have the luxury of taking an elevated view of the business or the time to engage in self-reflection, let alone analysing which individuals possess the attributes to clearly articulate and embody a company’s strategic vision to make sure it is realised at the coal face. Nevertheless, there are far too many examples of poor leadership not to make this a top strategic priority for all organisations.
In this article we will examine five sure-fire ways to ensure a strategy goes no further than the boardroom.
#1 Don’t align your senior team
Very often, senior teams are made up of executives with different (and often conflicting) priorities – the here and now often overruling the future direction of the business and the notion of going into bat for one’s department often at the fore. However, the most effective teams and boards, whilst having a wide representation of organisational interests, recognise the importance of leadership in contextualising the wider strategy for each department and as such, find ways to reach consensus in culture of openness and mutual respect. This leads to greater commitment to strategic decisions. Senior teams that seek to guide an organisation as a whole rather than a siloed entity will focus on developing human capital over anything else. Senior teams that don’t reach consensus on strategic priorities and share the burden of leadership will likely fall at the first hurdle.
#2 Get leaders to learn on the job
A recent survey revealed that a quarter of managers in the UK have not received any management training. Whilst there is a distinction between leadership and management, this shows that the likelihood of employees in positions of leadership throughout an organisation having the skills and support to lead effectively is very low. Leaders are the conduit between an organisation’s strategy and its people. If leaders are forced to learn on the job and aren’t equipped to engage, communicate, and inspire their teams, then getting people on board with a strategy will be an uphill struggle. A lack of focus on leadership will dilute a strategy at every touch point, leading to unrealised objectives.
And what of the senior team themselves? Have they had any recent leadership training? Have they been instrumental in development of leadership programmes? If one exists, is it bespoke to the organisation or generic? Does mentorship exist within the organisation from a leadership perspective? Is executive coaching provided to support and upskill leaders at all levels?
An organisation may not want to go all out with a leadership programme and executive coaching for key staff, but unless there is a support structure in place, leaders will be rudderless, to the detriment of the business.
#3 Promote the wrong people
Organisational politics dictates that positions of leadership do not just go to those who are best suited for the role. There are often other factors at play, and whilst it is inappropriate to speculate on these, it is nonetheless a concern that time is not spent identifying true leaders within an organisation. Leadership attributes should be high on the list of role criteria, which may open up the position for unlikely candidates. Remember, skill set can be taught; mindset is often innate. Organisations that have a blinkered view on leadership roles and use metrics such as length of service or technical ability are likely to have overlooked candidates that have an aptitude for communication and achieving buy in. Does your organisation spend enough time spent identifying true leaders, as opposed to promoting by default?
#4 Don’t worry about those further down the line
In order to be effective, an organisation must have a clear direction of leadership from top to bottom – this must be structured and coordinated to ensure that leaders at all levels have the support they need to get the message across and to address resistance. Many organisations only start to recognise leaders at middle management level. But to ignore the leaders that are closest to the shop floor as it were, is akin to carefully preparing ingredients for a recipe and then leaving the top off the blender! Organisations that have a “leadership cascade” can ensure that the right strategic information in the right context can be understood and executed in every department of the business. If true leadership ends at middle management, the end result is left up to chance.
#5 Culture Shmulture!
If the seed of a strategy lands on unfavourable soil, it will die. Hence the reality that a company thrives or fails on the strength of its culture. If culture is seen as separate from strategy, then it is likely doomed to failure. Moreover, senior teams that don’t consistently review their culture and engagement will likely form outdated assumptions of the company’s cultural health.
Successful organisations assess the likelihood of resistance, how best to communicate change, and who is best placed to lead that change as a pre-requisite of any new initiative. This can be done through objective analysis of the organisational culture and key stakeholders within it. This may lead to a shifting in priorities such as addressing cultural issues before implementing a particular strategy.
So, what makes a good leader?
There are myriad motivational posts on social media about what makes a good leader, but in truth, these are no more than fleeting platitudes. When assessing what really makes a good leader, it helps to check the academic literature on the subject.
For example, according to Towse and Tabesh, writing in the European Management Journal in 2021, it is the combination of knowledge and experience, positive reputation within the organisation, and good interpersonal skills that set a leader up for success. However, these attributes can still not be enough if the organisation does not present favourable conditions for leadership – i.e., there has to be a degree of positive culture in order for leadership to be accepted.
Gätcher et al. state that cooperativeness, optimism and leading by example are critical attributes of leadership, scholars such as Kotter and Nohria cite excellent communication skills and the ability to face problems head on as essential criteria.
Interviews with faculty at Harvard Business School revealed that emotional intelligence, self-reflection and seeking honest feedback, honesty about strengths and weaknesses and aligning people behind a common purpose were key to leading authentically and enabling positive change.
However, from an organisational perspective, it is essential to turn the above attributes, that will certainly exist within most organisations, into a structured vehicle for leadership. As an organisation grows, direct control over implementation lessens, so an emphasis on building leadership capability at all levels of an organisation is essential if a strategy is to be effectively implemented.
So, having looked at some ways to kill a strategy with poor leadership, what makes a good leader, and recognising that leadership needs to be emphasised at all levels of an organisation for a strategy to be implemented successfully, let’s reverse those 5 aspects to see what will make an organisation really thrive.
- An aligned senior team that recognise leadership as the key to strategy implementation.
- Leaders are educated and supported to lead with confidence.
- The right people are in the right positions on the strength of their leadership attributes.
- Leadership development and communication is present at all levels.
- Focus is on creating a positive culture to ensure favourable conditions for change.
“An emphasis on building leadership capability at all levels of an organisation is essential if a strategy is to be effectively implemented.”
Ultimately, leadership is not an easy discipline, otherwise there wouldn’t be an entire sector dedicated to it. But there are fundamental principles that can be adhered to, such as those mentioned above, that will set an organisation up for successful strategy implementation. Senior executives and boards should focus on building leadership capability throughout an organisation as a means to ensuring strategic delivery in the face of diminishing control as the organisation grows. It takes time, effort, and an authentic desire to do so, but the return on investment is always worthwhile. Surely, taking leadership off the social media feed and into the core of strategy will make for significantly fewer horror stories in the future.
Alex Towse & Pooya Tabesh – Strategy implementation: A review and an introductory framework – European Management Journal 2021.
Leadership – HBS Working Knowledge Research Collection – accessed Dec 2021.
S Gätcher et al. – Who makes a good leader? Cooperativeness, optimism, and leading‐by‐example – Economic Enquiry, 2012.
Deborah Blagg and Susan Young – HBS Bulletin, April 2001 – What makes a good leader?