Is Your Team Aligned?

Is Your Team Aligned?

10.11.12John Pancoast

How often do we hear about the importance of executive “alignment” these days? When I was in business school, alignment wasn’t even in the business lexicon. Is it just another 21st century buzzword, offering a new name for established wisdom, or does it capture new meaning that guides us to valuable insights and action?

Many people see executive alignment primarily as a communication issue. If leaders could be more open about the organization’s vision and mission, the thinking goes, the organization would be better aligned. As a result, people would be more productive, and would deviate less from the desired path. Resources would be used more efficiently. Strategies and plans would be achieved.

These dimensions of leadership seem obvious. Why do we need another description for communications today? I believe there is one huge difference between communication and alignment – the role and behaviors of the leaders themselves.

To make the point clearly, let us suppose that there are three distinct aspects of alignment for a business unit within a company.

First among these is the agreement of the governing statements about the business – the vision, values, strategy, and operating plans that will lead to success. These statements need to be compelling and internally consistent, and the team must believe that following these will deliver the results they point to. When we have agreement between these statements, there is “horizontal” alignment. When these statements are not clear or harmonious – and I still find this to be the case even in large, sophisticated companies – it is the leader’s responsibility to make sure his or her leadership team does the challenging work of achieving horizontal alignment.

The second form is “vertical” alignment. It is the leadership team’s responsibility to drive the vision, strategy, and near-term objectives deep into their organization. They should do this through persistent communication and absolute consistency between the governing statements and their own actions and decisions as they lead the enterprise.

Many leadership teams do not work as effectively as they might to drive the business toward its vision and strategic objectives. What gets in the way? In my experience, if the team is truly in agreement about the governing statements, then it is the lingering tension between making choices for the benefit of the whole enterprise and the desire to advocate for and protect one’s particular unit.  Vertical alignment is accomplished when leaders set the tone for collaboration in the organization through their own actions. They need to ensure that everybody is aware of what the overriding business objectives are, and that conflicts between business and functional goals be quickly aired, discussed, and resolved. Moreover, they must insist on the same from the members of their leadership team.

The third part of the leadership team’s crucial alignment role is ensuring alignment between the business unit and the rest of the company – in effect, managing the decision-making matrix. Matrix organizations are notoriously difficult to manage. Often, just one person in a decision-making matrix has the opportunity to block progress, while unanimity of stakeholders is often required, and difficult to achieve for any change in course. The leadership team needs to reach out to peers and key stakeholders in other parts of the company to ensure that their strategies are understood, supported, and resourced appropriately. They need to advocate for their business while being flexible in accommodating the needs of other units. All in all, this is far more dynamic a process than communication alone.

So, do we need the “a” word in our lexicon? I say that we do, because it drives home the importance of the leader’s role – in ensuring that the governing statements agree, in modeling the key aspects of alignment through consistent decision-making and cascading personal communication, and through engaging other functional or business unit leaders to make the matrix work for everybody.

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