Some 87 percent of businesses fail to execute their strategy each year. Here, author Dan Prosser explains why—and offers eight startling insights into human interaction, the hidden forces that drive leaders, and the astonishing power of the conversations we enable and nurture.
It happens again and again. You come up with a viable strategy that you believe will “fix” your ailing company. You hold lots of employee meetings to talk about it. Maybe you leave fired up with enthusiasm, or maybe you harbor a nagging sense of doubt—worried that perhaps you just have the wrong people. It doesn’t seem to matter. As the weeks grow into months, you realize that—once again—what needs to get done just isn’t getting done. And damned if you can figure out why.
You’re not alone. At least 87 percent of companies fail to execute their strategy each year. And the problem that lies at the heart of all their challenges may surprise you: disconnectedness.
I truly believe that of all the factors that impact the success of businesses, connectedness is the one element missing in most of today’s organizations. If today’s leaders actually focused on building the connectedness they and their employees crave, they would see a many-fold increase in performance and bottom-line results.
In my new book THIRTEENERS, I explain how to push your company into the 13 percent of those that successfully create and nurture those vital connections and are regularly featured on Best Places to Work lists. At these organizations, leaders are connected to employees, employees to each other, and everyone to the organization’s vision and marketplace. The book explains how they get it right and how you can do it also.
As command-and-control management styles have become a thing of the past, the importance of connectedness has skyrocketed. Today, every company’s competitive advantage derives from how well they can innovate. Employees have to feel safe to share their ideas. Colleagues need to be able to work together to develop and modify those ideas. And no one can get there without connectedness.
Here are some of the book’s insights:
Business is actually a network of interrelated conversations. In the book, I write about my introduction to the work of University of Houston researcher Dr. Brené Brown. Her principal message is this: If you want an organization that produces breakthrough results, you must confidently lead the conversations that will bring connectedness to your company and give real meaning to the work your employees are doing.
Everything you do in your business is the result of a conversation. Each business idea you come up with starts with a conversation. So does each action you take. Conversations have within them the ultimate power to make things be the way you say they’re going to be.
It’s critically important to create awareness around the conversations going on inside your company. I’ve seen amazing transformations happen when people uncover damaging conversations and replace them with others that build connections.
Employees are infected by hidden conversations that, together, add up to the “Execution Virus.” The greatest challenges in business today are these unseen obstacles—the limiting and negative viral conversations that infect your vision, your mission, and the strategy you’re trying to execute right now. They undermine and sabotage individual and team performance.
In THIRTEENERS, I present 10 conversations that regularly disrupt performance, feeding the “Execution Virus.” For example, when your employees regularly say, “It’s not our strategy,” what they are really communicating is that they feel they have no say in the direction of the company. As a result, they aren’t engaged. Or if “We’ve always done it this way” is a common mantra, it usually indicates that people are trapped in old paradigms, unable to take action to move the business forward.
These conversations aren’t complicated. You don’t have to have training in organizational development to recognize them. However, they are the reason your employees are disconnected from you, from your vision, from your mission, from the strategy for your company, and from the needs of your customers.
We settle for hoping when we should be declaring. There is no integrity in hope. Hoping is the antithesis of using the power of language to make bold declarations that enable bold action. Hope limits what employees are able to achieve. Instead, you must be willing to step up and say how you’re going to win. This actually invents a conversation that says, “This is how it is right now.” Then you’ll work your butt off to close the gap between what you said and where you are the moment you say it.
There is a big difference between a conversation for action and talking about action. You can have countless meetings talking about action but because you haven’t created a “conversation for action,” nothing is getting done. Outcomes become possible only when you are willing to declare it to be possible—with absolutely no evidence that it is—and then to take the actions that are missing and that are consistent with your commitment. Your words gain power only at the moment you are willing to say how it is going to be and then take the actions to have it be that way.
Connectedness can’t happen when leaders “play it safe.” Not all leaders have the courage it takes to walk into a meeting and engage others in an authentic inquiry to uncover real solutions. Instead, they choose to play it safe. When they hear an employee 20 or 30 years their junior offer a valuable insight that wasn’t even on their radar, they go into self-preservation mode. They say, “That’s not how we do it around here,” or, “That’s not good enough.” But comments like this disconnect the organization from you and employees from each other.
To be a THIRTEENER requires real leadership. Real leaders are willing to “lead out loud.” This means displaying vulnerability and asking for and accepting input from your employees so that everyone can contribute to and “own” the company’s strategy for the future. For many leaders it’s scary to let employees see that you don’t have all the answers, but if you want them to commit to making your organization unstoppable, it’s critical.
If you think you have all the answers, you’re only pretending to lead. The predominant myth in business (and elsewhere) is that to be a leader people will follow, you must already “know” the answers or come with ready-made solutions to the most vexing problems your organization faces. If you believe this, you’re not leading, but pretending. And when you pretend to lead, you’re covering up something that’s missing—something that could ultimately cause you to fail.
Leadership is about stepping out of your comfort zone—getting out of the box. Until you recognize that your true value as a leader is in your ability to lead an inquiry into the solutions for your organization (and not try to provide all the answers), you are doomed to repeat your own bad decisions and those of others who came before you. To accomplish that, you have to be willing to listen.
Patriarchy destroys connectedness. You may think your company is not patriarchal, but chances are it is to some degree. And while the word might conjure up a dour-faced man with a long white beard sitting on a mountaintop, men and women alike are guilty of perpetuating a patriarchal style of management. Unfortunately, it creates a class divide: them and us/me, and as a result, erodes connectedness.
The idea that each employee has something of value to contribute is missing from a patriarchal system. Employees are never allowed to be their fully human selves; instead, a leader’s ego is inflated by marginalizing others.
On the other hand, when there is relatedness, it’s very easy for an employee to talk to his or her direct supervisor, because that supervisor listens. And there is real solidarity among executives, managers, and employees. If someone needs something, there is no problem with starting a conversation that gets the issue handled. As a result, connectedness helps strengthen the internal and external relationships that are one of a company’s most important assets.
Trying too hard to avoid failure actually leads to failure. 87 percent of all companies with a strategic plan will fail to execute it. One factor that contributes to their inability to execute is a reservation to set big—or “unreasonable”— goals. Many business owners opt to play it safe by setting reasonable goals in an effort to avoid failure.
Most people are invested in not failing, and they’ve taught all their employees to value that course of action over taking any kind of risks that have the potential to pay off. Everyone’s doing it, and it’s costing them on a grand scale. When you set reasonable goals to avoid failure, people will make only a little extra effort—but if goals are unreasonable, people will make real changes in the way they work. Sure, it’s a risk, but in business, risk is the only way to true success.
In teaching others to let go of their fears about what might happen if they take risks, I’ve seen miracles happen. A professional services firm had an unprecedented 60 percent leap in performance in five months, for example. A creative services group went from a loss of tens of thousands of dollars in one year to a place on the Inc. 500/5,000 list and a more than 40,000 percent increase in net profit during the following years.
Embracing chaos is better than clinging to equilibrium. The fundamental reason why so few teams don’t make it to the finish line and execute their strategy is that leaders can’t tolerate the discomfort that comes with the chaos when things aren’t happening as planned. They can’t stay the course and wait for the source of the breakdown to reveal itself. They feel the need to act, to do something to overcome the sense of being out of control. Instead of just accepting that disequilibrium is natural, most leaders want to look for a way to create the pretense of balance.
To create an organization of innovation and creativity, you need to allow and even introduce the tension that comes with or causes chaos. Systems that are out of equilibrium are forced to explore their space of possibilities, and this leads to new patterns of relationships and structures. An organization that embraces chaos is healthier than one that hangs on to equilibrium, and it can achieve a new level of performance.
If you’re a CEO or senior business leader with the potential for impacting the lives of others, you need to become deeply interested in the role you play in driving connectedness into your organization. You need to learn about how connectedness, and the lack of it, shapes your employees’ workplace experience and ultimately leads to the successful execution of your vision.
Connectedness even plays a key role in the primary design of your strategy—even before you have a chance to take action on it. The extent to which you can create and nurture it directly correlates to the likelihood of your company becoming a THIRTEENER.