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Got Alignment? Why Strategic Initiatives From The CEO Often Fail

By Sander Biehn | Jun 3, 2014

As a middle manager I was excited about spending a week with my Sales VP, Loni. Not only would it be good exposure, I would have a chance to show off my leaning and leadership skills. We  had been randomly selected to participate in a pilot training course that headquarters was rolling out to the entire sales force in the coming year. Our job was to evaluate it and to get our teams excited about this new selling method.

But I became quickly disenchanted by Loni’s nonchalant attitude  as we rode together to the training center in Milwaukee that February morning.  “Kid, when you’ve been around as long as I have you have seen these kind of things come and go…it’s the flavor of the month club,” she quipped.

I was confused. My team was not selling in a very strategic way and our numbers reflected that competitors were gaining share. I saw any investment from headquarters in my team as something positive.

Loni was the highest ranking manger in the pilot training and the instructor pandered to her. Meanwhile, Loni ducked out to take calls and messed around on her smartphone during the lessons. Over lunch she told me, “Someone in headquarters was sold on this package. Probably, they had budget they needed to spend and this fit the bill.”  I was demoralized. The next few months would be difficult for me. My team wanted to know why they were being asked to take this selling course and get certified in strategic selling. I enjoyed the course and told them what I liked about it, but I could not relay why headquarters had chosen this particular course. When I was asked, all I could see in my mind’s eye was Loni with her arms crossed, rolling her eyes.

This story illustrates a huge gap that corporations face today. With many layers of management, it can be exceedingly difficult to make sure messages from the top reach the bottom and everyone understands the direction in which to march and why we are going that direction anyway.  Hardly any CEO can accurately be accused of lacking vision. The reason it may seem that way in your company is because of a break-down such as this in alignment.  Allow me to elaborate.

Certainly, Loni is the loose link in this story. Clearly, headquarters had chosen this training based on a gap in skills that was preventing the sales force from becoming more strategic. In my story, I later found out that a multi-million dollar study performed by a Big 8 consulting firm led to choosing this course. It was anything but “the flavor of the month.”

So why does middle management take such a cynical approach? Why wouldn’t a seasoned VP like Loni be aligned?

There are two culprits.  Overall lack of alignment and lack of trust that others are being truthful about their desire to align.  Let’s look at each one individually:

CEO’s generally have a view into one or two levels below them. This can be enough when trying to align the goals of say a human resources department. If the CEO is looking to create greater diversity at the VP levels, reports with charts and graphs can be enough to get the job done. But when a complicated cross department initiative is started, it is easy for the alignment to get lost in the weeds. In my example, Marketing provided the training budget. While the training was aligned to the CEO’s goals, possibly no one in Marketing sought Sales input to see if Sales agreed. Or, worse yet, there was agreement between Sales and Marketing at the executive level, but the message was not relayed to the regional VP’s, creating a huge disconnect.

The second major culprit in a alignment is a lack of trust. How does a Sales VP know that a Marketing director didn’t purchase this training course based on the best price or sales pitch and not on how well it lined up with corporate goals?  Too many times in corporate structures, lack of understanding and communication between departments can taint how the motivation behind decisions was arrived at.

The answer to solving these problems is not just a matter of creating better alignment. There is no doubt that by making the CEO’s goals clear further down in the corporation would have given Loni a better chance to extract the reason for the new training course. But there is something more deep-seeded and diabolical that  needs to be addressed.  Alignment assumes that VP’s have the skill levels to bring about the changes needed in the organization. While the company and senior executives may have been hand-picked to make changes, having a mid-level manager with no incentive, skills or desire to change is problematic.  Moving in new middle management can create disruptions and headaches, but what are the consequences of a failed attempt to change course? Without alignment of middle management the strategy of a gifted CEO may be mollified by her own employees. Intra-corporate communication has become a hot topic, but it isn’t enough.  Defining the skill sets needed to make the change and getting those individuals in the correct jobs can be the difference between success and failure.

Loni may or may not have had the skills needed to transform the sales team, but because no one was evaluating that at my company, we may never know how powerful the training investment may have become. Predictably, after a year or so it died on the vine in my market segment. I will never forget the last time a sales rep was explaining his strategy on a top opportunity to Loni in a review using the terms he learned in the training course. Loni folded her arms and rolled her eyes.

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