Tue | May 18, 2021

Francis Wade | CEO’s dilemma: How to implement a great idea

Published:Sunday | April 18, 2021 | 12:16 AM

If you’re the leader of an organisation, what should you do when you develop an exciting, fresh strategic direction for your company? Before you rush in, take caution. You could do more bad than good if you don’t proceed carefully.

Imagine yourself as a CEO or managing director just returning from a two-day conference in New York. As you sit in the departure lounge, you’re filled with nervous energy. Three big ideas triggered by your exposure churn in your mind. Your organisation needs them to secure its survival in these trying times.

However, you also heard from a consultant who cautioned against implementing any new idea from the top down. If the implementation is complex, it’s easy for you to chase up the hill, only to realise that your troops aren’t behind you. How can you ensure that your business transforms in order to survive while engaging staff at all levels along the way?

Would a town hall announcement do the trick?

The answer is usually no. As the leader, you must account for several gaps inherent in your leadership that could doom your effort. These must be accounted for in the way you roll out your ideas to ensure implementation.

Gap 1: Your strategic thinking, versus that of others

Most CEOs forget that while they are focusing on the company’s strategy 90 per cent of the time, their direct staff is far less concerned. In my experience, the average leader wants managers who are short-term result-producers. As such, each manager spends no more than 10% of their time thinking about long-term strategy, triggered only by the advent of the annual retreat.

Therefore, managers develop strategic skills slowly, if at all. Consequently, many who are promoted to top positions end up floundering as they simply are not used to the long-term thinking needed to guide the enterprise.

This means that your bright, strategic idea might not be readily understood by your colleagues. While you came to these “sudden” insights based on your foreign exposure, it might take them much longer to arrive at the same conclusion. Therefore, you need to give them time to come up to speed, just to appreciate the nuances of your proposal. Don’t be impatient.

Gap 2: Your executives’ engagement

While your top executives are used to managing their departments for quick results, they are probably not used to putting the hours into projects that have a long-term pay-off. This can doom your strategy.

Most important strategic initiatives affect several departments at once. Also, the people who must implement them are usually far away from the CEO’s office. Therefore, top managers must have more than an abstract understanding; they need to show an emotional connection with the new project. That’s the only way to inspire those who need to set aside old behaviours and implement new ones.

Such executive bonds aren’t crafted via a town-hall speech, or by sending out messages on the importance of creating shareholder value. Instead, you must hold a commitment event – an occasion specifically intended to bring your top managers together in a public show of solidarity.

This usually takes place in a strategic planning retreat. By the time it ends, each attendee has been asked to craft and engage with the new strategic plan. But it’s not a majority vote in which the losers are forced to sign up to something they don’t believe in.

Instead, there needs to be a sense that your three big ideas are self-evident: conclusions that any team of smart people would arrive at. As this happens, as the CEO, you must release any authorship of the original insights and allow others to build their own commitment, in their own words, for their own reasons.

Gap 3: Their visible support

But this can’t be window dressing. Having everyone nod together is a start. The rubber hits the road when the plans hit the lower tiers of the organisation. Now, leaders must engage staff so that they develop their own commitments as well, which cannot happen in an ordinary meeting.

The point of taking this circuitous route rather than just “issuing a directive” is that complex changes need the buy-in of many people who often don’t work together. The energy required to bring them to a single vision is considerable and doesn’t happen in an instant.

Don’t be fooled by those who offer instant assent. Instead, realise that success occurs only when staff members are applying private, discretionary time and effort.

This approach may not do much for the ego-driven CEO who is a magnet for credit and attention, but it’s the right one for the organisation. In the long term, the best way to implement a new idea is through others.

- Francis Wade is a management consultant and author of ‘Perfect Time-Based Productivity’. To receive a Summary of Links to past columns, or give feedback, email: columns@fwconsulting.com