I knew my client was overwhelmed. The stress he was feeling was vibrating and his frustration unmistakable. As he explained his situation, I saw how depleted he had become, how he was struggling to find the energy be the kind of leader he wanted to be. Something needed to change.
A year earlier, during an annual company retreat, he’d stood before his organization and shared what he believed to be an impassioned vision of the future, one both bold and exciting. Using a maze of colorful charts that seemed closing argument in a jury trial, he presented the path forward with specific steps and anticipated challenges the journey would surely bring.
Yet today, the flywheel my client meant to set in motion at that retreat still hasn’t found its momentum. Instead, random fits and starts have left initiatives dangling, a slew of resignations has taken place and a demoralized culture has taken root. “Despite my best intentions,” he told me, “the organization feels unmovable.”
Whether leading a department or an entire organization, every leader knows what it’s like to experience a stall in momentum. Sometimes the stalls are short. Other times it feels like they drag on with no end in sight. If this scenario feels familiar, or if you fear you may be verging toward a similar path as you look toward 2023, below are three steps you can take to break the pattern and get moving again.
Get Clear: Make your vision irresistible.
Imagine sitting down to watch a movie. Of course, you hope it’s going to be good, but you won’t get a feel for it until the end of that first scene—those first few minutes that set the tone of what’s to come. If it misses, you will quickly tune out by walking away (sometimes literally), dozing off or thinking about other things. But if it hits, you will engage with your full attention until the credits roll. There’s a critical turning point at which the movie either becomes irresistible, or something to endure.
When describing their vision, a leader has about as much time to earn the full attention of their team as a filmmaker has with their audience. How a leader sets the stage—the words they choose, how they inflect their voice, the rhythm and cadence of their sentences—is far more important than abstract data in a spreadsheet or PowerPoint presentation. An irresistible vision is never an intellectual exercise. Instead, it’s a vivid, well-told story carefully designed to grab and hold emotion.
The truth is everyone wants to be part of something big and grand. They want to experience the challenge of impossibility and the gratification that comes with knowing they’re overcoming that impossibility and making a difference, collaborating in the story of bringing a bold vision into reality.
Get Focused: Work together to create the path forward.
Once you share your irresistible vision, the timer will be set by your employee culture. Action is critical and there is no time to waste in getting to it. A common mistake leaders make is coming on strong with what they believe to be a compelling vision, getting everyone whipped up, and then disappearing to create the strategic plan. You’ve hooked your colleagues with a great opening scene; you need to keep them involved until the credits roll. As individuals, your team members want to feel the work they do each day makes a difference and skilled leaders are able to show them how they are making an impact. Without that, one by one your colleagues will lose interest and all the momentum you need will be at risk.
Depending on the size of your organization, it may not be realistic to include everyone in all aspects of the development of your strategic plan. Even in large organizations where not everyone can be at the actual planning table, it’s still possible to make everyone feel as though they have a hand in creating the plan. Here’s how:
1. Assemble a cross-departmental core planning team of around seven to nine people. A smaller planning team will help drive process efficiency, and by making sure all departments have a seat at the table, you’ll send a clear message that all functions are important.
2. Before the actual planning work begins, administer an organization-wide survey to gather strategic guidance from all team members. Use the responses as context for creating your plan.
3. Intentionally design milestone check-ins with all team members in all departments to share the progress of the planning team and ask for input. This kind of transparency is powerful.
4. Encourage core planning team members to talk about their experience—the conversations being had during the planning sessions and the progress being made—with their colleagues who aren’t on the formal planning team.
Get Moving: Don’t drive hard, then drive off.
In 1991, the road crime comedy drama “Thelma and Louise” was released. In it, an exhausting, cross-country flight from federal agents in a 1966 Ford Thunderbird ends in an unforgettable scene. It left most audiences either screaming at the screen or sitting dazed in their seats well after the credits had ended.
While tragic, the scene can be seen as an illustration of what happens to many strategic plans once they’re complete. Despite well-intentioned enthusiasm and hard work on behalf of many, these plans are prone to disappointing endings, often due to an unspoken expectation that plans simply implement themselves. With no clear process for implementation, it feels as though the plan has fallen off a cliff. Conversation goes silent, the path forward stops abruptly. The bold vision that gave life to the process seems like nothing more than a pipedream and a cynicism starts to pervade the organization’s culture.
But not all endings are tragic. The best plans start with the end in mind and the belief that implementation is as important as the plan itself. Start the conversation on implementation early in your planning process. Questions to answer include:
1. Who will be your plan manager?
2. What will be the method of monitoring the plan and collecting performance feedback?
3. How will progress be reported?
4. When will we conduct a formal update of the plan to ensure its ongoing relevance?
My client could have saved himself a great deal of frustration and avoided the stalled start he described to me by taking time to understand what it would take to truly move the emotional spirit of his organization. He needed to know how to connect in a relevant and meaningful way with his employees and how to inspire, engage and activate them in a way that translated to sustainable momentum.
As a leader, it is both your impassioned vision of the future and the path you take to get there that inspire your organization to new heights and greater successes. Avoid becoming hyper-focused on the development of your strategic plan. It isn’t a box to check off your to-do list. Instead, pay attention to the conditions necessary for your plan to be successful over the long term. When you’ve done this, you, and your team, will be ready to write an exciting new story.