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 executivealignment. While large transformational programs can fail for many reasons,executive alignment?or lack of it?is consistently cited as a major cause offailure.

When organizations conduct formal post mortems on largetransformational program failures, they typically find several ?soft? causes offailure. These causes include poor program or project management, sponsorsmisaligned on or unclear about program goals, ambiguity of program leadershipaccountabilities and responsibilities, ill-defined or inconsistent programgovernance, a lack of communication to stakeholders, and a lack of change ortransition management.

While these causes all contribute to program failure, togetherthey are symptomatic of a greater underlying root cause: the lack of executivealignment and commitment.

In many cases, organizations are guilty of looking only atevidence that confirms their view of the world. Latching onto one symptom, suchas communications or stakeholder management, they prioritize this aspect in thenext program as a critical success factor, only to find that even withincreased focus, the program still fails to deliver on its transformationalobjectives.

The organization again asks why it is unable to deliver largetransformational programs and rallies around the new sympt?me du jour orconsiders outsourcing the program execution to a global consultingorganization.

The fact is there is no single cause. Large transformationalprograms are multivariate and require the commitment of several executives andorganizations to be successful. While consultants can help deliver largeprograms and facilitate transformation, actual sustained transformation mustcome from within the organization.

Elements of Executive Alignment

Through our consulting practice, we have developed a frameworkto define executive alignment, identify potential causes of misalignment andprovide recommendations to ensure alignment around mutually agreed-uponoutcomes. In our model, we define seven elements of executive alignment:vision, strategy, objectives, leader/follower, accountability, investment andcommunication.

For each element, we havedefined an executive alignment statement. If program executives cannotconfidently make these statements, they are misaligned and need to address theroot causes. We have further divided these seven elements into two categories:malicious compliance and well-meaning resistance.

Malicious compliance is intentional behavior of an individualor organization that damages the program through actions designed to createperceived versus actual commitment. It is a particularly insidious form ofpassive-aggressive organizational behavior. Well-meaning resistance describesbehavior that can initially be mistaken for a lack of commitment, but simplymasks immediate operational priorities or issues. It delays or preventsindividual or organizational commitment.

With both malicious compliance and well-meaning resistance, itis essential to dig below the veneer to truly understand the behavior and itscauses. Let?s look at each of the seven elements of executive alignment in thisframework.


?I share the vision and believe it is achievable.?

Discussions about changing an entire company or a significantelement of it can be fast-paced and passionate. Why is it that only afterprogram failure do you hear executives say, ?The vision was all wrong? or?People never really bought into the vision.? Unless all executives can makethe executive alignment statement, ?I share the vision and believe it isachievable,? there is immediate misalignment.

If one or more executives do not share the vision or believeit 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, TheFifth 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 agreementand shared understanding of the strategy to achieve that vision. Too often,strategy is mistaken for individual hypotheses in the mind of programexecutives.

Our suggested approach is to clearly define the strategicoptions and resulting implications of the shared vision; prioritize beingeffective over being right; and gain agreement on the optimal strategy toachieve the shared vision. The strategy can only be measured by its ability toachieve the shared vision.


?I am committed to the objectives/results/value.?

Along with vision and strategy, executive commitment tospecific objectives is one of the key elements of executive alignment.Individual and organizational incentives are one way to ensure executivecommitment; these incentives need to be aligned with the transformationalprogram.

We often see high-level aspirational objectives such asimprove on-time delivery by 5 percent, improve VAR experience or increasemargins.

However, hard, specific conversations need to take place. Werecommend SMARTER (specific, measurable, achievable, realistic, timely,effective and results-oriented) objectives, drilled down to the lowestactionable level of specific performance to which individuals and organizationscan commit.

What?s needed is the moment when an executive says, ?I can (orcannot) commit my organization to that.? Then the executive alignmentconversation 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 goodfollower. Leadership of executives (leaders) is difficult. To achieve executivealignment, executive leaders need to accept and follow the appointed programleader.

While leadership responsibilities can be transferred or evenshared when appropriate, once the responsibilities are agreed upon, a lead,follow or get-out-of-the-way approach must be taken?or personnel changes mustbe made. Time and time again, programs limp forward with the leader?s right tolead and the other executives? commitment to follow in question. These programstypically fail.

Clear leadership roles and responsibilities are required,along with clear and unambiguous decision rights.


?I am prepared to be accountable/responsible for thesuccess or failure.?

At the beginning of a transformational program, everybodywants to be in the room, but transformational change requires people to committo actually making it happen. The responsible, accountable, consulted, informed(RACI) matrix is a popular tool for this, but like objectives, it needs to bedrilled down to a low level to identify who is truly accountable for what andwho has decision rights.

Tying program objectives or performance to executivecompensation is very difficult, but it?s also very effective in drivingindividual and organizational accountability. Again, the objective is to havethe conversations, provide clarity and uncover misalignment.

Vision, strategy, objectives, leader/follower andaccountability are all elements that are susceptible to malicious compliance.If unaddressed, they will likely lead to executive misalignment and programfailure.


?I will commit the time and resources to the work.?

Investment and communication are the two elements of executivealignment we that are especially susceptible to ?well-meaning resistance.?Often on transformational programs, executives are either engaged with severalprograms or simply lack the commitment to the proposed change. The true test ofindividual or organizational commitment is the investment of funds, time andresources to the program.

Often, operational constraints, such as limited resources,prevent executives from making such an investment. A program that?s limpingforward with poor resource availability from an accountable organization is arecipe for failure.


Often, after the initial marketing message of atransformational program, the executive communication is poor and limited tobasic status reporting, which is usually shown as ?green? until the program isin trouble. At that point, the startled executive team finds out it is too lateto fix things.

In some cases, there is an assumption by stakeholders thatexecutive communication is being done, but no one is actually doing it. Inother cases, it is being done, but in a ?death by PowerPoint? fashion.

Real executive communication drives action. How manytimes have you seen an executive forward a presentation from a transformationalprogram with an added comment, such as ?Please forward as appropriate??

Sometimes, real change or transition management requires oneto say to an executive, ?We have a problem, and the problem is you.? Othertimes, the executive actually doesn?t understand the program and requiresone-on-one communication.

Pay Meaningful Attention

Our framework for executive alignment seeks to specifyelements, causes, recommendations and outcomes. It encourages those involved intransformational programs to pay meaningful attention to all elements ratherthan simply paying them lip service.

The realization later that a transformational program lackedtrue executive alignment is usually part of a post mortem on project failure,by which time the executives themselves have often been written off and theircareer prospects damaged.

However, a real commitment to ensure executive alignment upfront and to continuously test it, combined with the courage to take correctiveactions or stop the program when executives are misaligned, is required forlarge 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 ofindustries and has led consulting engagements for a wide array of Fortune 500companies. Kenny can be reached at [email protected].

Steve Blunt has built an executive career on threecontinents, working for both startups and Fortune 500 companies, including IBMand Cisco.