“Scott, I would like to acknowledge you for the profound effect you have made on our Company and its leadership. The result of … your coaching … is a turned on, enthusiastic, joyous group committed to our new vision … We will double our business in five years as a result of your teaching’s on how to think, speak, and act.”
Gary Benjamin, President
Champion, Inc.
Iron Mountain, MI

The fundamental shift in management that took place at Champion, Inc. would be impossible at many, if not most, companies today. I remember speaking with a company’s administrator on the telephone after she read one of our articles. She sounded exhausted. One of the owners was fed up and threatening to leave, the staff was discouraged, infighting and suspicion paralyzed decision making and despite the planning that did take place, nothing seemed to get done.

She could have been reporting on any number of companies. When things get rough, owners instinctively seem to grip the reigns of control more tightly, and teamwork in the office seems to fade at the very moment when creativity and cooperation are most urgently needed. It’s crazy, but this plays out all the time in companies of every size and description. How then are companies to plan for and adapt to the changing economic environment they now face? How can owners and executives access the kind of outside the box strategic change demonstrated by the management of Champion, Inc.? How was their strategic plan successfully implemented when so many others seem to fall short, and what makes change of this magnitude possible?

In the normal course of events, the development of a strategic plan is viewed as a three-step process. First, a company conducts an internal assessment of its strengths and weaknesses. What is the company presently doing, and how well is it doing it? Who are its present clients or customers? What are the company’s strengths and interests? How well are existing practices and procedures working?

Next, following this internal assessment, an external survey of the marketplace and the company’s competitors takes place. What’s going on in the marketplace? Who are the potential clients or customers, and what are their interests? Who are the competitors? What are they doing to serve those clients or customers? What’s hot and what’s not? This research allows the company to determine its current standing, given its strengths and the opportunities discovered, and results in a management and marketing strategy designed to best position the company in the desired marketplace and to distinguish the company from its competitors.

Finally, the owners or executives develop a plan of attack, including a company-wide blueprint as well as individual business development plans for each department. This plan of attack may call for broad organizational restructuring in addition to advertising, public relations, and business development components.

In theory, there is nothing wrong with this approach. It can work. However, in practice this approach to strategic planning seldom produces the desired results. The reasons for this are rarely examined and, consequently, never really understood. Executives almost always overlook the fact that a strong organizational foundation must first be laid within the company in order for a strategic plan to be effectively implemented. Otherwise, the process of strategic change is like a skyscraper built over a swamp – it won’t take long to sink under its own weight.

Thus, strategic planning must begin by setting five cornerstones essential to the creation of a strong internal foundation.

First, rich, meaningful, quality, trusting relationships must exist among the people in the company if they are to take bold action. Unfortunately, this is rarely the case. The world we grew up in taught us neither the importance of quality relationships nor how to create and maintain them. In his famous book, How To Win Friends and Influence People, Dale Carnegie states emphatically that human beings are primarily interested in themselves. This is a fundamental problem – people aren’t oriented around service of others. Rather, individuals are concerned with whether or not others will fulfill their expectations, desires and intentions. Individuals judge and evaluate others and their actions in these terms and, given this reality, disappointment is inevitable.

Further, since we are never taught to effectively deal with or communicate our disappointments in other people, we open metaphorical files on others and store evidence against them whenever a negative judgment has taken place. Once opened, these files accumulate evidence, reinforcing our initial evaluations and provide the genesis for the hidden agendas that most people conceal from each other. These unspoken, personal agendas then thwart all attempts to implement strategic planning and defeat other effective actions. Everyone in the company senses the suspicion and discomfort that results from the accumulation of these files, but no one knows what to do. Finally, as the files continue to grow in the absence of communication, the relationships within the company cascade relentlessly downhill.

This scenario is played out in thousands of companies across the country every day. Everyone in the company feels the tension. Most companies are not happy or pleasant places to work, and often the best that can be hoped for of relationships is peaceful coexistence. People regularly leave out of disgust. Others take their talents and secretly shop them around with other companies, planning their escape. It’s like a game of musical chairs. Seemingly every day another employee goes elsewhere under the delusion that the new situation will be an improvement. It rarely is.

People must learn that it is essential to refrain from building files and that they must stay in communication with their co-workers. Yet, because people don’t appreciate the necessity of quality relationships and because they are untrained in responsible communication, this is rarely achieved without outside intervention. Almost every organizational intervention we conduct starts with a multi-day retreat in which the existing paradigm of file building is revealed and the air is cleared. It doesn’t take much to get people to see that they have accumulated files on each other and that they have failed to communicate with one another. The revelation of the tremendous price that they and the company have paid in terms of declining satisfaction, diminished success, reduced accomplishment and lower income creates an opportunity to train them to speak and listen responsibly.

“After three days of listening and talking, each and everyone of our management team felt it was the best three days they had spent with the company. The relationships among the management team are now very strong and the communication is honest and open. The barriers that existed prior to the retreat have been exposed and dealt with.”
Michael W. Wells, President
REI Real Estate Services, Inc.

People must learn to speak without judgment, without making people wrong and without attack when dealing with co-workers. However, their communication must remain honest and direct while maintaining dignity, respect and compassion. Further, they must learn to own their judgments and evaluations and to keep their communication on their side. In other words rather than saying, I don’t think you’re working hard enough, or I don’t like the way you treat your secretary, someone might say, I expected you to work x number of hours each month, and you’re only working y number of hours. That leaves me feeling disappointed and believing I’m carrying a greater share of the load, or I’m disappointed by the nature of your relationship with your secretary. The purpose of these communications is to empty the files and let go of the accompanying resentment without damaging others.

Perhaps the biggest challenge to laying aside the accumulated files is in learning how to listen. As Carnegie points out, our attention is on ourselves and on our own internal conversations and opinions when we listen. We listen judgmentally to what others are saying. Do we agree or not; do we like it or not; do we think it’s the truth or not? This way of listening is useless. The speaker has no sense of being understood, of being heard, and there is no opportunity to purge the file.

There is an alternative way to listen in which the listener’s attention is on the speaker, on really recognizing how it is for them. Set aside judgment and interpretation and just be there for the other person. Just get the communication. Really work hard to understand and appreciate how it is for your co-workers, and encourage them to speak. Don’t get defensive. Don’t react. The only appropriate response to a communication is thank you, I’m sorry or both. A perfectly appropriate response is thank you for telling me. I’m truly sorry. Is there anything else you want to tell me?

“I have learned to listen hard for the good – not the bad – in others and am learning that there is no substitute for direct conversations with people as the way to address issues and problems.”
J. Michael Mahaffey, Esq.
Corpus Christi, TX

When people are willing to do this, magic occurs. Individuals have the experience of being heard. They’re able to empty their files, and they are returned to their affinity with each other. Michael Mahaffey talks about it this way: The firm has been given a positive process for our daily personal relationships at all levels of the firm. We’ve dramatically reduced the personal upsets that shut down productive contributions to the firm by the people in it.

To facilitate this with a small number of people, twenty or fewer, it is often practical to sit in a U-shape arrangement and seat one person at a time in the middle of the open end. Then all of the other participants communicate in turn to the person in the center. While this might sound like a horrible experience, it’s in fact just the opposite. Individuals are remarkably appreciative when they find out what others are holding against them and what they’re doing that doesn’t work for others.

After everyone has communicated to everyone else, the participants apologize to each other. An apology is an acknowledgment of what the other person said and a request for forgiveness. The process ends with people actually forgiving each other.

We have taken dozens of groups through this process, and the results have always been extraordinary. The process has an enormous impact on people. They are unburdened, tears are often shed and hugs are often exchanged. Everyone is inspired by the courage others have demonstrated, and individuals can now work together to create a future they are all committed to.

The retreat typically ends with this question. Are you willing to commit yourself to working with this group of people to create a future for all of you? The answer is almost always a resounding yes, even from those who have previously been plotting their escape.

Once this retreat has been completed, the remaining cornerstones of the foundation can be laid.

The second cornerstone is a powerful mission for the company. The most common mission in corporate America is making money. This wouldn’t be bad if your clients or customers were interested in you making money and if your staff was motivated by the owners making money. Unfortunately, neither is the case. On the other hand, people are motivated and inspired by an organization that is committed to something worthwhile. Even under the harshest human exterior there is always a fundamental desire to contribute and make a difference. When people work for an organization whose commitment is to contribute and make a difference, to provide some worthwhile service, value and benefit, it brings out the best in them.

Because of the nature of business, many people in leadership positions are cynical and resigned. Their cynicism and resignation make it difficult for them to see how their company can be committed to contributing and making a difference. This is unfortunate. Almost any company can provide a perfect opportunity to do this.

This whole conversation is usually the subject of a second retreat. Ask participants questions like the following: If you could design an ideal company, what would it look like? What kind of work would you be doing? Who would you be doing it for? What would you be accomplishing? What would you be contributing to your clients or customers? What would you be contributing to the community? What would you want your reputation to be? What kind of environment would you really want to create for yourself and the other people that work here? What concerns do you presently have about the business climate and how would you like to go about correcting them? When given an opportunity to speak on these important issues, what people come up with is usually quite inspiring.

One Newport Beach, California firm’s statement of purpose includes commitments to represent our clients as we would want to be represented, always putting their interests first…to advance their causes consistent with the highest standards of excellence…to develop a team oriented work environment which provides our employees opportunities to achieve personal satisfaction…to recognize and reward their contribution…to have a positive impact on the community. Contractors knocking out a wall to expand the office has been their biggest disruption lately.

Once a clear vision, mission and purpose for the company have been created, it is possible to establish the third cornerstone, namely an empowering culture, one that values and recognizes the dignity of human beings both within and outside the company.

The culture provides the rules of the road. It sets forth the way people will conduct themselves, the way they will interact with each other and with the leadership, and the way they will operate with their clients and in the community. The best way to do this is by assigning the formulation to a committee, a group of people that really care about the quality of life within the company. The committee should consist, not only of partners, but of associates and staff so that everyone within the company is represented.

When communication and contribution become part of a company `s culture, creativity and innovation soar, providing access to breakthrough thinking and bold action. One company that went through this process vacated an entire floor of their building – an idea suggested by a secretary. Not only did the move bring the company together and improve morale, but by subletting the space, the company saved over $60,000 a year. They also terminated or renegotiated vendor relationships based on suggestions from administration – one case saving $30,000 annually – and redesigned staff and managerial assignments to require fewer work hours and increased productivity.

The fourth cornerstone requires that all individuals in the company align themselves with the new overall vision and culture. In the ordinary course of events, everyone has his own agenda and this saps the company of its power and its ability to produce results with velocity. Files are built and teamwork is nonexistent. With a defined vision and culture, there is something for everyone to rally behind, and people can see that they can only achieve their personal objectives by the entire team winning.

Alignment is best created by staging an event, or a series of events if the company is too large for everyone to attend a single event. The event should take at least a half a day and is most effective when conducted with a significant level of formality so that everyone recognizes that this is something important to the owners. Taking everyone in the company to a nice hotel for a luncheon is a great way to start.

Next, the owners present their vision for the future, the company `s purpose and the cultural commitments. After these elements are presented, individuals join in small groups to discuss the specific issues and to provide their feedback. The conversation is usually quite lively. The event ends on a high, motivating note this is where we’re going, this is what we’re committed to! Are you willing to be a part of that? Are you willing to put aside your personal agenda on behalf of the agenda of the company? Are you willing to be part of a team of people working for a common objective?

Not surprisingly, a few people won’t be. There are some who are just so committed to their own personal agendas, that they can’t see beyond them, but this won’t be a problem. Most individuals will be so thrilled to be part of an exciting organization that’s going some place that those who aren’t committed to its success will make themselves known very quickly and will leave the company. In almost every company we’ve worked with, one or more people have left of their own volition.

“On behalf of the shareholders and myself, I would like to thank you for what you’ve done to help us transform our firm into a cohesive, focused group that is now wholly aligned on a purpose, with a clear vision of the future, and that is communicating effectively and ‘straight’ with one another…I’ve never experienced a situation like this where a consultant has come in and done exactly what was needed…Our communication with one another has improved dramatically, far beyond expectations. We have learned so much from you…”
Greg Cooley, former President
Eibach Springs

The fifth and final cornerstone is strong leadership. Its importance can’t be emphasized enough. Without leadership, business as usual will quickly return despite the company’s best efforts. The primary job of leadership is to keep the vision and mission of the company alive and continually visible for everyone. The leadership must stand firmly for the future everyone has committed themselves to. Leaders must be unwilling to tolerate anything other than the high ideals and cultural standards that have been established through the formulation process. Most successful companies have this kind of leadership.

If all of these cornerstones are in place, there is a significant likelihood that the traditional strategic planning process will be highly successful. It almost has to be. On the other hand, without the firm foundation, the strategic planning process will quickly become mired down by internal conflict and division.

Author's Bio: 

Scott Hunter, author, speaker and industry leader, helps people GET UNSTUCK.
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