Most managers have different personal leadership traits but all confront similar challenges when leading strategy.
Despite the sheer number of textbooks, academic articles and even entire degrees pitched around the concept of leadership, in practice it more often than not comes down to effective stakeholder engagement.
Lisa Barrand, a director of Negotiation Education Australia, has over 20 years’ experience in strategy and negotiation, designing and leading programs for Melbourne Business School that have helped numerous public and private sector organisations make things happen, not just talk about them.
With local and international clients such as Fresenius Kabi, Nike Australia, Commlife Indonesia, Colorado, Orica, and Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority, Barrand facilitates engagement on projects that require the collaboration of diverse stakeholders – initiatives that can sometimes be derailed by hidden agendas and internal politics.
Below are six strategic solutions Barrand has identified.
1. Collaborate rather than seek compliance
“There are many strategies managers can use to support collaboration, but first they need to identify what they mean by it,” Barrand says.
For example, some managers will talk about stakeholders collaborating on a project while insisting on non-negotiable compliance, which is not really collaboration at all.
“As a first step, stop selling your project and start listening to what’s important to others,” Barrand says.
“With that mindset, you will become more aware of their priorities and interests, which could in turn allow you to construct the project in a way that will actually make all stakeholders want to collaborate.”
Indeed, a key theme of CPA Australia’s upcoming Strategic Manager Program, which Barrand will co-facilitate, is how to go about constructing and aligning collaborative pieces of work across an organisation to move beyond tick-the-box compliance towards real commitment and engagement.
This is not to say that compliance as an idea is not important because, obviously, there are certain things everyone needs to comply with, such as occupational health and safety.
However, it is important for managers to work with teams in a way that leads them to collaborate and cooperate, rather than just do the bare minimum.
Unfortunately, Barrand says many internal service provider functions develop policies, processes and programs and then implement them as though they were a finished product within the organisation, rarely pausing to think about the interests of those who are going to have to work with them.
“They don’t think about engaging stakeholders in the development or the methodology for implementation,” Barrand says. “Instead, they just roll it out, and therefore from day one miss a real opportunity to secure commitment and buy-in.”
2. Identify competitive advantages
It is usual for organisations to have in place a step-by-step process through which they identify and try to exploit competitive opportunities, and to be successful it requires that managers approach it with the right mindset.
“There are two key processes that managers need to be mindful of,” Barrand notes. “The first is being tuned in to what’s happening in the external environment in terms of competitors, trends, patterns and market shifts, and always being open to the possibility that there are new opportunities to be taken advantage of.
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“The second is about having a completely honest understanding of what your organisation’s true competitive advantages are. These could be around people, culture, product differentiation, product leadership, or process capability.
“Really savvy strategic managers are able to look at the ongoing intersection between the two processes – that is, the external environment and the true capabilities of their own organisation.”
3. Have an aligned executive team
It remains, however, that some companies simply seem to be more successful than others when communicating their strategic intent to internal stakeholders – something which, according to Barrand, can lead to huge opportunities.
“The best organisations are able to identify their competitive advantages, but translating them [to stakeholders] is harder than it appears. One of the practices I’ve seen that truly differentiates those organisations is having an aligned executive team.”
By this Barrand means a team that is aligned not just on paper, but is consistently on the same page.
“The informal conversations executive team members have with internal stakeholders about the direction of the organisation are vitally important,” she maintains.
“If I’m talking to a director over a cup of coffee about where the organisation is going, he or she needs to make the most of that informal conversation. They need to be good storytellers about organisational direction and how the strategy is coming together to fulfil the objective.
“Finding out about direction and strategy often happens more during conversations in the corridor than in a PowerPoint presentation, and they’re the conversations that really matter.”
Even so, that alone is not enough. Another important practice is the engagement of “one up” managers – i.e. a manager’s manager.
“People may take their cue about priorities and choices from their direct line manager, but in the best organisations one-up managers are skilled up, motivated and also able to have those conversations with team members,” Barrand says.
4. Try a ‘Blue Ocean Strategy’
Of course, the different inputs that go to determining overall strategy will largely depend on the seniority of individual managers. At the top of the organisational pyramid, a handful of leaders (the C-suite) will likely be focused on the intersection between potential future customers and how to leverage current organisational capabilities to attract them.
This is known as Blue Ocean Strategy, or the identification of currently uncontested market space. The term derives from the work of management thinkers W. Chan Kim and Renée Mauborgne, who argue that “cutthroat competition results in nothing but a bloody red ocean of rivals fighting over a shrinking profit pool”.
Their idea is to instead make the competition irrelevant by capturing new “blue oceans”, and in this Barrand believes all managers have a role to play.
“At every level, managers can be observing and feeding back into the process valuable information about customer and non-customer behaviour,” she says.
“How are customers responding or why aren’t they responding to what we do? What have we noticed about that and how can it help us to understand where new markets might be created, or to create different markets for current customers?”
5. Identify customer value curves
A key learning objective of the Strategic Manager Program is to recognise customer value needs, which begs the question: How can organisations and their managers accurately assess customer value given no two customers are likely to place the same value on the same product or service?
“In part, identifying customer value is about identifying the choices you want to make and are prepared to make,” Barrand explains.
“You’re trying to identify customers according to your own criteria, which might, for example, be the most customers of the greatest value. Individual customers are going to perceive things differently, but there may also be a cohort at a generic or aggregated level.”
This is where customer value curves come in; diagrams that can be used by strategic managers to show where value is created within an organisation’s products or services. Notably, multiple value curves can provide a visual comparison with competitive offerings to uncover possible spaces or gaps in the market.
“Customer value curves are a great implementation tool,” Barrand says. “They can help managers prioritise areas for reinvention and rethinking and be a tool for building commitment with the people who are actually responsible for implementation.”
6. Know your opportunities and risks
But still, getting the message across to stakeholders and securing commitment to a strategy inevitably depends on how managers approach it, and when it comes to different personal leadership traits or “styles”, there are probably hundreds.
“Having worked with hundreds – possibly thousands of managers – and looking at 360-degree feedback, I’d say there is one main area of opportunity and one main area of risk,” Barrand declares.
“The primary opportunity area is in what I call the domain of leading others. Many managers are promoted into their role because of their technical excellence, but the biggest opportunity to kind of balance that out [or augment it] is around leading other people – delegating, engaging, communicating, supporting, involving and creating meaning for people in their team.
“I say it’s an opportunity because most managers, if they put their mind to it, can do that work, but it often falls to the lowest priority when other important tasks need to be completed.”
But with opportunity comes risk, as many managers fail to redress issues around what Barrand calls “problem employees” who, for whatever reason, are not performing in their role.
“So there is an upside and there is a risk factor which, if I had to generalise, would be managers who are aware that there are people within their teams who are either not doing the work they need to, or the way in which they are working is having a negative impact on people around them and the manager is not attending to the issue.”
This, she insists, is not necessarily indicative of a fundamental flaw in someone’s management capabilities, but it can present difficulties down the track.
“It’s not really a flaw, or if it is it’s an understandable one,” Barrand says. “Most managers want to be seen to be doing a good job with their team and peers, so when someone is not delivering as required many will work collaboratively with that person to try to bring them on board. So, up to a point, it’s an allowable weakness because you are trying to encourage and engage someone, but there is also a point at which a manager needs to resolve those kinds of issues, and it may not be from a developmental perspective.”
Although good managers will seek to create workplace collaboration, it can be undermined by a weak link in the chain, which is why truly strategic managers have an array of solutions they can call on when needed.