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It may have been the third or fourth time our team met to discuss our initiatives for the coming year. Without hesitation we responded to the prompts from our new CEO, “Who feels ready to go to battle? Do we have the right talent in place? Are we committed to our new direction? Anyone not on board speak or forever hold your…!” Well, gee wiz, I thought to myself, this train seems to be going about 200 miles an hour, my body seems to be on the train, but my heart certainly isn’t.

For the next 45 minutes we traded comments about how committed we were to our upcoming efforts, how sure we were that it would indeed make us more competitive, how central this would be to our long-term success. But my concern was that this enthusiastic commitment was limited to our leadership team, or perhaps a few members of the team. Even though we had discussed a few of the challenges that might stand in our way, not once did we take the time to seriously question our new vision, consider real alternatives to our plans, or check back with our respective teams. Had we reached the point of no return? Did we really have the capacity to do all the things we concluded we needed to do? And what about my team? My confidence in my own ability to deliver on the plans was teetering on panic, and the lump in my throat was strangling me.

The Alignment Challenge

Does this scenario seem farfetched? Don’t think so. Unless leadership teams have created a climate of productive contention, candor and recognition for bravery in the line of duty, organizations fall victim to “enthusiasm, cheerleading, and failure to establish accountability. So much opportunity is left on the strategic table that competitors swarm like sharks to snatch the entrees. When it comes to behavioral versatility, leadership teams are often plagued with narrow bandwidth, and given today’s business complexity, much like the world of wireless communication, the more bandwidth, the better it is. The example above is certainly not unique. Do you know whether your executive team is aligned?

How can executive teams adopt proven behaviors and crack the code for accelerating their performance? One of life’s simple truths — there is no one best approach. But there are practices that yield positive results when applied to a variety of strategic discussions: First, before enthusiasm propels the team into motion, capture a variety of leadership team perspectives on the vision and readiness to go forward with important business initiatives, then be prepared to challenge and resolve the differences before the team breaks huddle. Second, anticipate and plan for resistance to change, and third, refine a few of the most critical leadership skills or behaviors necessary for effectively supporting the most important efforts. Seems simple, yet this can be very difficult to adopt and reinforce.

The more I think about these practices, the more I’m reminded how effectively one of my client’s managers applied them. “OK, I realize we’ve all had a chance to provide feedback on our proposed new direction, but we have yet to lay it on the table and ask each other whether it makes sense — are we doing the right thing? So, I propose we take the next few hours and share our individual views on the plan and challenge some of our thinking.” His set up was perfect for the team. They spent the next few hours debating, encouraging, rethinking, and arriving at a new launch point. Unfortunately many teams are not as fortunate. This approach is often preempted by other, seemingly more pressing needs.

Anticipating and Responding to Resistance

“Now that we’ve zeroed in on our direction, where might our efforts get derailed? Let’s not just think about what others may or may not do during the launch, but what might we do that could signal resistance?” I know, we rarely hear this, but it should be heard and acted upon. The steps are simple:

  1. Identify the most likely areas of resistance
  2. Measure the current level of push-back
  3. Determine the best response and reinforce

Refine and Reinforce Critical Leadership Skills and Behaviors

The word ALIGN reminds us of a set of actions and behaviors that serve me well during challenging assignments, particularly those which involve guiding teams through change.

  • Act for the benefit of the team, even if it requires setting one’s own desires aside
  • Listen and learn from others even when you are certain you know the best response
  • Initiate action that truly enables others to make their best contribution
  • Generate goodwill across multiple areas of the business
  • Nurture and recognize achievement

This may not work for everyone, but it is a start. It pays huge dividends when investing in organizational alignment. Often, people in influential positions get so caught up in the frenzy of tactical execution, the five actions and related behaviors take a back seat. The power of alignment is magnified many times when blended with positive reinforcement and other enabling steps.

If it feels as if your organization is not quite ready for what you are about to do, do something about it. Do everything possible to clarify, manage resistance and model behaviors that contribute to alignment. The ability to achieve total alignment may seem beyond reach, and many executives become bashful about going on the offensive, but there is far too much at stake not to lead with boldness. It’s time to turn alignment into a real force for positive change!

By Sheryl Dawson
Executive Partner
Dawson Consulting Group