Executive Alignment: Key to Business Success
By Michael S. Kenny and Steve Blunt
As organizations undertake large transformational programs, there is a critical need to ensure that executives are aligned to the vision, purpose and goals of the proposed change. This is often called executive alignment. While large transformational programs can fail for many reasons, executive alignment—or lack of it—is consistently cited as a major cause of failure.
When organizations conduct formal post mortems on large transformational program failures, they typically find several “soft” causes of failure. These causes include poor program or project management, sponsors misaligned on or unclear about program goals, ambiguity of program leadership accountabilities and responsibilities, ill-defined or inconsistent program governance, a lack of communication to stakeholders, and a lack of change or transition management.
While these causes all contribute to program failure, together they are symptomatic of a greater underlying root cause: the lack of executive alignment and commitment.
In many cases, organizations are guilty of looking only at evidence that confirms their view of the world. Latching onto one symptom, such as communications or stakeholder management, they prioritize this aspect in the next program as a critical success factor, only to find that even with increased focus, the program still fails to deliver on its transformational objectives.
The organization again asks why it is unable to deliver large transformational programs and rallies around the new symptôme du jour or considers outsourcing the program execution to a global consulting organization.
The fact is there is no single cause. Large transformational programs are multivariate and require the commitment of several executives and organizations to be successful. While consultants can help deliver large programs and facilitate transformation, actual sustained transformation must come from within the organization.
Elements of Executive Alignment
Through our consulting practice, we have developed a framework to define executive alignment, identify potential causes of misalignment and provide recommendations to ensure alignment around mutually agreed-upon outcomes. In our model, we define seven elements of executive alignment: vision, strategy, objectives, leader/follower, accountability, investment and communication.
For each element, we have defined an executive alignment statement. If program executives cannot confidently make these statements, they are misaligned and need to address the root causes. We have further divided these seven elements into two categories: malicious compliance and well-meaning resistance.
Malicious compliance is intentional behavior of an individual or organization that damages the program through actions designed to create perceived versus actual commitment. It is a particularly insidious form of passive-aggressive organizational behavior. Well-meaning resistance describes behavior that can initially be mistaken for a lack of commitment, but simply masks immediate operational priorities or issues. It delays or prevents individual or organizational commitment.
With both malicious compliance and well-meaning resistance, it is essential to dig below the veneer to truly understand the behavior and its causes. Let’s look at each of the seven elements of executive alignment in this framework.
“I share the vision and believe it is achievable.”
Discussions about changing an entire company or a significant element of it can be fast-paced and passionate. Why is it that only after program failure do you hear executives say, “The vision was all wrong” or “People never really bought into the vision.” Unless all executives can make the executive alignment statement, “I share the vision and believe it is achievable,” there is immediate misalignment.
If one or more executives do not share the vision or believe it is achievable, the approach must be to build a new shared vision together. (The concept of shared vision was introduced by Peter Senge in his 2006 book, The Fifth Discipline: The Art & Practice of the Learning Organization.)
“I agree with the strategy to achieve the vision.”
Having agreed on the vision, it is critical to have agreement and shared understanding of the strategy to achieve that vision. Too often, strategy is mistaken for individual hypotheses in the mind of program executives.
Our suggested approach is to clearly define the strategic options and resulting implications of the shared vision; prioritize being effective over being right; and gain agreement on the optimal strategy to achieve the shared vision. The strategy can only be measured by its ability to achieve the shared vision.
“I am committed to the objectives/results/value.”
Along with vision and strategy, executive commitment to specific objectives is one of the key elements of executive alignment. Individual and organizational incentives are one way to ensure executive commitment; these incentives need to be aligned with the transformational program.
We often see high-level aspirational objectives such as improve on-time delivery by 5 percent, improve VAR experience or increase margins.
However, hard, specific conversations need to take place. We recommend SMARTER (specific, measurable, achievable, realistic, timely, effective and results-oriented) objectives, drilled down to the lowest actionable level of specific performance to which individuals and organizations can commit.
What’s needed is the moment when an executive says, “I can (or cannot) commit my organization to that.” Then the executive alignment conversation can truly begin.
“I am prepared to be a leader or a follower.”
To be a good leader, you need to know when to be a good follower. Leadership of executives (leaders) is difficult. To achieve executive alignment, executive leaders need to accept and follow the appointed program leader.
While leadership responsibilities can be transferred or even shared when appropriate, once the responsibilities are agreed upon, a lead, follow or get-out-of-the-way approach must be taken—or personnel changes must be made. Time and time again, programs limp forward with the leader’s right to lead and the other executives’ commitment to follow in question. These programs typically fail.
Clear leadership roles and responsibilities are required, along with clear and unambiguous decision rights.
“I am prepared to be accountable/responsible for the success or failure.”
At the beginning of a transformational program, everybody wants to be in the room, but transformational change requires people to commit to actually making it happen. The responsible, accountable, consulted, informed (RACI) matrix is a popular tool for this, but like objectives, it needs to be drilled down to a low level to identify who is truly accountable for what and who has decision rights.
Tying program objectives or performance to executive compensation is very difficult, but it’s also very effective in driving individual and organizational accountability. Again, the objective is to have the conversations, provide clarity and uncover misalignment.
Vision, strategy, objectives, leader/follower and accountability are all elements that are susceptible to malicious compliance. If unaddressed, they will likely lead to executive misalignment and program failure.
“I will commit the time and resources to the work.”
Investment and communication are the two elements of executive alignment we that are especially susceptible to “well-meaning resistance.” Often on transformational programs, executives are either engaged with several programs or simply lack the commitment to the proposed change. The true test of individual or organizational commitment is the investment of funds, time and resources to the program.
Often, operational constraints, such as limited resources, prevent executives from making such an investment. A program that’s limping forward with poor resource availability from an accountable organization is a recipe for failure.
Often, after the initial marketing message of a transformational program, the executive communication is poor and limited to basic status reporting, which is usually shown as “green” until the program is in trouble. At that point, the startled executive team finds out it is too late to fix things.
In some cases, there is an assumption by stakeholders that executive communication is being done, but no one is actually doing it. In other cases, it is being done, but in a “death by PowerPoint” fashion.
Real executive communication drives action. How many times have you seen an executive forward a presentation from a transformational program with an added comment, such as “Please forward as appropriate”?
Sometimes, real change or transition management requires one to say to an executive, “We have a problem, and the problem is you.” Other times, the executive actually doesn’t understand the program and requires one-on-one communication.
Pay Meaningful Attention
Our framework for executive alignment seeks to specify elements, causes, recommendations and outcomes. It encourages those involved in transformational programs to pay meaningful attention to all elements rather than simply paying them lip service.
The realization later that a transformational program lacked true executive alignment is usually part of a post mortem on project failure, by which time the executives themselves have often been written off and their career prospects damaged.
However, a real commitment to ensure executive alignment up front and to continuously test it, combined with the courage to take corrective actions or stop the program when executives are misaligned, is required for large transformational program success.
Michael S. Kenny is the managing partner of Kenny & Co. He has more than 20 years of consulting experience across a variety of industries and has led consulting engagements for a wide array of Fortune 500 companies. Kenny can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Steve Blunt has built an executive career on three continents, working for both startups and Fortune 500 companies, including IBM and Cisco.