How can you personally be more strategic as a leader?
A solid business strategy and great employees that can implement it may seem like the only elements you need to create a successful organization. But how good is a strategy if your team is unclear about their role in it? Or if they are uncertain of the end goals? The key is to remind everyone of their greater purpose in the company, allow discussions to be open enough to take in new ideas, and to re-engage with your team in a real way.
Lisa Lai is a business advisor, consultant, author, and speaker. She is a former Fortune 500 executive, and now works with global leaders on execution, strategy, and effective leadership. She teaches leadership development for Harvard Business School Publishing, is published in HBR and on her own blog, which has been read in 75 countries. Her most recent Harvard Business Review article is Being a Strategic Leader is About Asking the Right Questions. I recently interviewed Lisa for the LEADx Podcast where she took us through the 5 questions every leader needs to ask their team. (The interview below has been lightly edited for space and clarity.)
Kevin Kruse: Walk us through the 5 questions that we could be asking our team members, to make sure they're strategically aligned with our organization.
Lisa Lai: You bet. There are so many people who talk about strategy and the importance of alignment. There's all this complexity that finds its way into conversations about strategy. We even have these very sophisticated constructs that we use in business that try to isolate strategy or at least examine strategy absent of what’s being done of value today. And so the five questions really serve as a guide to engage other people in dialogue, so that ultimately you're making the right strategic choices for the organization. So let's jump in:
The first question on the list is “What are we doing today?” On the surface, it seems so straightforward, but in reality, I think it's really hard for leaders to keep track of everything that's being done by their teams.
We keep adding more and more to the plate every day with new initiatives, or these bright shiny objects that someone in the organization wants us to chase, but I think we don't stop often enough to just understand how are our employees are investing their 2,000-plus hours of time at work this year? I don't think we can make the right choices about where to go, if we don't know where we are today, rationalizing what's currently in play for our teams.
Kruse: It's so easy to lose track of all of that stuff. That’s a great foundational question.
Lai: I think it's the first question, because if you don't know that, you really can't start talking about what else can we do, because you don't have an understanding of how time is being spent today. It's all about tradeoffs and choices, for us as leaders and for us as individuals. Starting off there I think is really important. From there, I think the next natural question is to say “Why? Why are you doing the work that you're doing, and why now?”
Once we know what's being done, I think it's important to understand the team's perspective on what's important and why. And in almost every case when you ask this question, you learn a lot about what your team members believe is important. Most of them will have a strong point of view about what matters to the customers they serve, or what's required to support others in the business.
It's all about having a discussion, and putting yourself in a position so that you can make those choices and those tradeoffs with limited resources. All of us, whether we're leaders or not, are faced with having to make these decisions today. But I think another thing that I love about this question, about why are we doing what we're doing, is it also puts you in a really fantastic position to help your associates attach meaning to their work.
Talking about what you do, and why it's important, it really allows everyone to feel a little better about what they're doing, because suddenly they realize, “I'm not just in the grind. This is actually important work that I'm doing. Let's talk about it.”
Kruse: That ties right into your third question, right?
Lai: Absolutely. The third question then moves on to say, “How does what we're doing today align with the bigger picture?” As leaders, one of our most important responsibilities is to make sure that what we're doing aligns to the greater good of the organization. If you don't understand what you're doing or why you're doing it, then clearly you're not gonna understand if you're really getting maximum benefit of all the work you're doing.
I always challenge my clients with the question, are you doing exactly and only what most benefits the organization overall? That includes your customers, your shareholders, the bottom-line, and your employees.
Kruse: I think when we are overwhelmed we end up working on things that aren't that critical.
Lai: Yeah and it's fascinating because when I go into organizations, and I'm working with them on strategy, I'll ask them this question, “Are you doing exactly and only what most benefits the organization?” And they'll say, “Absolutely. Yes, there's nothing that we're doing that we can stop doing.” And then when we start looking at it, inadvertently we can save about 20% of the time that's being invested by just not doing certain things in the organization.
Kruse: What do we ask next?
Lai: Next up is defining success for your team. This is really answering the question, “What does success look like?” We've all seen balanced scorecards and monthly metric summaries that businesses live and die by. But do they really tell the story of what success looks like for your team? If we ask the team, could they actually answer the question of what success looks like?
In my opinion, the best strategic thinkers invest time here. What are the activities, the behaviors, the relationships, and the outcomes that really drive success? I think this is how you align a high-performance team.
Kruse: Then there's one final question to ask in your series. What is it?
Lai: The final question, “What else could we do, beyond what we're doing today, to achieve what I call ‘more, better, faster’?” Finally, we get to the strategy conversation around new and better ways to achieve the company's goals. This is the most important, I think, of the five questions. But if you don't ask the other questions first, you're not gonna be in a position to make good choices. So more, better, faster results, always really important. But informed, strategic decisions are made in context, strategy in the context of everything else that you do, every day.
Kruse: Is this a one-on-one conversation? Is it a team conversation? How often should we have the conversation?
Lai: What I’ve done throughout my career, and helped other leaders do, is set a cadence that's appropriate for the business. So if you're a startup organization, Kevin, you and your team probably need to be having these conversations maybe once a month, where you're just evaluating, “Are we still focused on the right things? Is there anything that we need to take off our plate and stop doing? Are there any new strategic initiatives we want to introduce?”
But larger organizations can follow a slower cadence, but it's all about dialogue. And in most cases what I recommend are team conversations, followed up by individual conversations with your key contributors in the organization, just to make sure that you're hearing what the group might come up with, but also the collective genius of the individuals on your team.
Kruse: What advice would you give today to a young professional who wants to be viewed as a high potential?
Lai: I would say my best advice is to be thoughtful about how you choose to show up every day at work. It is a choice. Even if we make it by default, so why not make it by design. I think people form opinions about you based on three factors that I talk about, who you are, what you do, and how you do it.
The advice I would give is to say, think about how you would want someone to describe you, and then choose to behave in a way that would cause them to say exactly those things you would want them to say. And the more intentional you are about this, the more powerful you'll be, in life and at work.
Kruse: What about first-time managers?
Lai: I remember what it's like to be a first-time manager. You're overwhelmed, and you have all these competing priorities, and you're feeling both confident and unsure, I think at the same time. I would say early in my career, I was very focused on delivering results. That wasn't a bad thing, of course, but what I know now is that what's most important to get right in the early days, is to be a good human as a leader.
To treat your team members as though they matter. And not just to the organization, but to you personally. Get to know them, respect them. The trick that I always tell people is to treat your employees as you would want your wife, or husband, or daughter, or son, to be treated by their own leader.
If you get that right, if you put people first, the rest will follow. The results will follow.
Kruse: I always like to challenge our listeners to get 1% better every day. Could you challenge us?
Lai: I’d say two things actually. I'll give you two pieces of advice here. The first in my mind is to really challenge yourself personally, whether you're a leader or not yet a leader, to say, “Am I providing value?” Just looking at what you're doing today to say, “If I know what the larger goals of the organization are, am I providing value?”
I think the second piece is to say, really committing yourself to intellectual curiosity. I know that sounds a little bit like apple pie, so let's get practical here. I have a specific challenge that I give to many of my clients. I ask them to spend a couple of days, doing nothing but asking questions. At the end of the day, you could say to yourself, “Tomorrow, I'm gonna do nothing but ask questions. I'm not gonna provide any direction, no answers, no sharing my own point of view,” and of course, in full transparency, my customers hate me in that moment.
But be inquisitive and genuinely curious with other people, it fundamentally changes the dynamic of every relationship that you have. For leaders specifically, I think they quickly realize that their people are much stronger and more capable when they don't give them all the answers.
Kevin Kruse is a New York Times bestselling author, host of the popular LEADx Leadership Podcast, and the CEO/Founder of LEADx.org, which provides free world-class leadership training, professional development and career advice for anyone, anywhere.