High-level managers believe their mid-level managers and supervisors understand their organization’s top goals and strategies – and further, that they will align their work with those strategies. A recent article (see strategic misalignment) says that is not true. Why not? The article gives 2 reasons:
- “The top teams fail to agree among themselves on company-wide priorities.” More than half of the senior executives themselves could not state their own company’s official priorities.
- “Strategic alignment falls off a cliff from the top executives and continues to decline among lower-level managers.” It’s no surprise that when executives are not on the same page, those below don’t even know there is a page they could be on!
The authors’ recommended solution is that “Each top executive should consistently explain why his or her unit’s objectives matter for the team and for the company.” They went further, saying that executives should do a better job “explaining” to their mid-level managers how their unit’s goals fit into the overall organizational strategy.
Good advice, but note the authors rely on “explaining”, which is a weak form of communication. An alternative – and more effective – solution was demonstrated by one corporate client’s approach, using The Four Conversations as follows:
- Treat the executive-level goals and strategies as an “initiative conversation”, i.e., a proposal for corporate direction, rather than as a package of priorities to be delivered to – and consumed by – those below.
- Then arrange for several “understanding conversations” with the mid-level managers for the purpose of clarifying – and perhaps revising – the language of executive goals and strategies to match the language of mid-level goals and strategies (and vice versa). These dialogues design the bridge between organizational levels.
- Upon completing those dialogues, request that all members agree to use the organizational goals as a context for their more “local” goals, e.g., to keep both levels of goals and strategies visible in their workplace and part of their regular team meetings. These requests, promises, and agreements constitute “performance conversations”, and are useful to create a platform for alignment.
- Finally, revisit the success in implementing those alignment agreements on a regular basis with “closure conversations” that check whether – and how – the agreements are sustained and if they need to be updated in some way.
Communication to produce alignment between organizational levels will require attention to dialogue – a two-way discussion that incorporates the different perspectives into a unified perspective and language. Further, it calls for the rigor of making agreements to deploy those new perspectives and language at both ends of the bridge, as well as follow-up to support that implementation over time.
The vertical disconnect that can be found in most organizations does not always cause problems but the larger the organization, the larger the gap may become. Most people want to be effective and accomplish their own goals as part of accomplishing a larger purpose. It is the job of top executives to provide them with a well-structured opportunity to do that.