Bob Lieberman's Blog

Commentary and Tools For Empowering Change

Black Hole In The C-Suite

In the world of astronomy, black holes are objects so large and dense that they emit no light – only vague background radiation. Perfectly normal in the cosmos, but if that's how your leadership team appears to the rest of your company, you've got problems!

Last night I attended a program describing the Strategy Map, a formal management tool for aligning action to strategy. It claims to address the fact that adults at work need to know "why" in order to respond appropriately to novel situations.

"Why" is a question that demands an answer, and the Strategy Map seems to supply that answer. But it's just a document and, therefore, inherently unresponsive to those day-to-day "why" questions that employees inevitably have and that determine the real direction of a company.

A document can provide guidance, but it can't respond to novelty. That's the job of leadership. Without leadership's active engagement in these "why" conversations, employees will supply their own answers in order to get their jobs done in a timely fashion. Their undirected ingenuity will undermine alignment and eventually lead to corporate drift or worse.

Things get serious when the employee questions start to sound like "remind me why I'm doing this (dumb thing)". When employees are asking those kinds of questions, there's a conflict between strategy and reality that leadership would be well-advised to scrutinize closely.

"No battle plan survives contact with the enemy."

This quotation is German Field Marshall Helmuth von Moltke's famous observation that strategy must continuously adapt to reality. If your company is big on strategy, I wonder whether there's a black hole in your C-suite. You can tell by answering the following questions:

Do you hear your employees?
Your employees are (always!) telling you that they're having trouble applying strategy to their reality. If you don't hear them, you're in a bubble.

Do you respond? 
I sure hope so.

What do you say and do?
If you simply recite the strategy but in a louder voice, like an insensitive tourist who doesn't speak their host's native language, you're frustrating your employees.

What do your employees see and hear from you?
Probably not the same as what you say and do.

How do you know?
Let's stop here so you can reflect on this question.

Knowing what your employees see and hear from you is your area of greatest growth and has the greatest potential impact on your company. If you can commit yourself and your company to learning that, you will reconnect the black hole that you're probably in with the rest of your corporate universe.

That's a key secret to effective strategic alignment: pay as much attention to your employees' experience of you as you do to your customers' experience of your company.