Last week I wrote about the challenges a middle manager faces if their boss doesn’t support the vision from the top. But here’s a related, common problem: Sometimes a senior leader has vision but no effective way of getting it implemented. When that’s the case, it’s unlikely that resolution will come from the organization’s lower levels—not even when they support the vision. So what can a senior leader do to ensure that their vision can be implemented, and how can they foster progress?
Leadership Alone Is Not Enough
In any organization of more than two people, the leader alone is not enough to make a vision come to life. When a critical mass of support is not present, the vision stalls. But the vision itself can become a moving target because the leader revises it too frequently without enough notice and support. Some leaders do their thinking out loud, which can make them appear indecisive, or don’t present their vision with enough confidence and therefore get swayed by other people’s views.
It’s understandable that people won’t commit themselves to a vision if they don’t see plans in place to bring that vision to fruition or be willing to follow leaders who seem to toss off plans and proposals as if the excitement of sharing the big picture and the possibility of future success is more engaging and rewarding than actually getting anything done. These leaders’ motto seems to be, “If this idea doesn’t work out, there will always be another one.”
Many visionary leaders count on their people to figure out the next steps. Some believe it’s a usurpation of their team’s independence to tell them how implementation should work. But it’s ineffective to dump a vision on people, walk away, and assume things will work out the way you see them in your mind’s eye. If you don’t ask what the next steps are and how the team will accomplish them, that shows a lack of direction and support.
How Can a Leader Turn an Idea into a Successful Initiative?
If you’re a leader who wonders why your terrific ideas aren’t being carried out, the first thing you need to do is identify your own role in the lack of progress. Here are some questions you can ask yourself:
Where have I been unclear or inconsistent? Have I said or done anything that could cause my team to believe that I’ve changed my mind, I wasn’t sure what I really wanted in the first place, or I’ve moved on to another goal? When employees can’t tell, immediately, exactly what you want from them, they will give your comments less weight. And they’ll believe you’ve changed you mind if you stop referring to something because you believe it’s already underway or if you speak favorably about any other initiative and how great it could make things—especially if what you’re saying seems different from your last directive.
Where have I neglected the chain of communication? Even when you think you’ve been clear to your team, they may not be conveying your messages to other colleagues and subordinates in the way you intended. Some intermediate leaders may need support to convey the right messages, especially if they’re not inherently skillful communicators. Others may not have fully understood your intent or might actually prefer a different path. Use any of these bobbles to improve your results by working more closely with leaders and groups and shifting the way you communicate. For example, rather than doing what’s often called “spray and pray”—announcing a new initiative in a town hall and following it up with a memo—stick to the old marketing rule of seven exposures. Most people need to receive the same message at least seven times for it to break through all the hubbub surrounding them. If the intermediate links in the chain of command aren’t delivering seven communications, find ways to shore up or reinforce those connections.
How can I regroup, and who can help me be more effective? It’s easy to feel frustrated by an apparent lack of organizational response and to assume that people don’t care or aren’t competent. Though it’s possible that both things are true, it’s more likely that there’s a breakdown somewhere. Repairing your communication by clarifying (“This, not that”), explaining (“Here’s what this means for you”), and working closely with leaders and influencers throughout the organization (“Let’s make sure we’re all on the same page”) will demonstrate the direction you want. Doing appropriate check-ins, during which you ask about team plans and progress, will show that you still consider your vision important.
By asking colleagues and subordinates for feedback about your communication style and content and how well you’re managing the process, you can learn if you’ve been inadvertently undercutting your own intentions. Executive coaching can help too. Applying this input consistently will help you achieve better outcomes and reduce frustration—for both you and your staff.
Onward and upward —