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Alignment: What is it? How do you know if you have it? How do you get it?

The topic of alignment, like many things in life, is both simple and complex. It is simple because you can define alignment with a couple of words, “Gaining Buy-in.” It is complex because you must determine what level of buy-in you need…how do you know who you need buy-in from? And how can you tell whether they are bought in enough to accomplish the joint task? In some instances, figuring this out is easy. Take the sport baseball, for example, and the interaction between the shortstop and second baseman on a double play. Two outs, both members are in alignment. One or no outs, someone missed the toss, missed the bag, was slow getting it to first, bobbled the ball: No alignment. Unfortunately, it is much harder to see this kind of scenario in the fast-paced world of business. Often people are overly busy with full plates, leading to increased stress and shifting priorities, leaving little time to slow down and communicate appropriately.  Miscommunication and lack of communication makes it increasingly difficult for leaders to understand what’s happening until they see the bad affects in missed results, poor performances, and workplace conflict. Is there another way?

We utilize a Leadership model called VAE from Work of Leaders (Wiley’s DiSC assessment). It defines the work of any leader on any task, project, or initiative.  To be successful, leaders must define the Vision, gain Alignment to this vision, and Execute to deliver results. We like using this model of leadership at CI Squared because it is simple, understandable, and applicable to all leaders anywhere, anytime, and in any situation. Work of Leaders defines three drivers to each phase: Vision, Alignment, and Execution and two behavioral continuums that indicate your natural ability to exhibit that behavior. Therefore, there are 18 behaviors measured, 2 behavioral continuum for each driver. This data will tell you whether your natural leadership style is strong for each driver or weak for each driver and, subsequently, each Phase of Leadership. This objective model and analysis can lead to some very interesting discussions and insights into strengths and challenges as they relate to both individuals and teams, and it can help you immensely in both leveraging strengths and building guard rails to keep you falling off cliffs in weakness.

I reference this model because we have a significant amount of data that shows that the majority of organizations and leadership teams we have worked with have large GAPS in the Alignment phase of leadership. This means that many of the leaders have not developed the natural skills and behaviors that create alignment and buy-in for projects. They may have a powerful vision and create the momentum for execution, but because of poor alignment they do not get the full inspiration or passion of their people.  Ask yourself, “do your people seem motivated and take their own decisive actions on projects? Are they making things happen or watching what’s happening? Are you spending a lot of time trying to push your team to do things? Are you feeling a lot of passive resistance from your teams? And do you see them “whispering around the water cooler” about stuff they do not want you to hear?   If any of these things are true, you have not spent enough time gaining alignment. Would you be better off as a leader if you knew if this was a weakness and made some compensating adjustments in this phase of the project?  To do this you have to pay attention to the 3 drivers on alignment and work at shifting your behavior to build skills in these areas. Having the time, patience and practice to incorporate these 3 drivers actively into your  communication will help us all avoid the alignment pitfall early in the project. And being on the lookout for a lack of alignment will help you nip problems in the bud as you progress.

The first driver is clarity. In other words are you describing the vision in a way that is clear and understandable for others who may be new to this project. Many of the Senior executives and leaders we work with do not take the time to build an inspiring Story about the project or practice it enough to be able to tell it well.  With their natural leadership skills they just “wing it” speaking from their intuition and all of the myriad of ideas swirling around in their minds.  After explaining the vision they are still very clear in their mind on this Vision and even more committed than before, but leave many collaborators scratching their heads and wondering, “What the heck were they saying?” “Why is this important to me?” “How am I supposed to get involved with this and do my current job?” “I’ll just wait until they force me to do something.”  I can assure you in retrospect that in several leadership situations where I have been “selling the Vision” these were the thoughts going through people’s minds. Although clear to me and maybe most of my senior management team sometimes we just tossed the Ball too quickly. Unfortunately, the vision did not start seeping into our people’s subconscious brains. It was not clear enough for them to take seriously and even begin the discussion part. And worse it soured some of them on the direction of the leadership team.

But lets say that you are clear on presenting the vision and everyone does get it. We still need to spend some time on the next Driver, Dialogue. Dialogue is defined as people discussing something. It is an interaction and in this case a place for people to bring up objections, things they see wrong and ways for improvement.  Our job as leaders during this phase is not to counter every objection or be the “smartest’ person in the room, but to listen curiously for understanding. Try to see what they are saying and why they are saying it. Try to bring the good ideas into the execution phase showing strength and collaboration. Show your collaborators that you are open and flexible and need them to execute. This takes great communication skills because we often might be dealing with things you disagree with. How do we learn to turn these into opportunities not threats? Because many of us do not practice this behavior enough, it may not be our natural reaction and as a result we may lose the buy-in of many of the key people we need to execute the plan. Slowing down somewhat to take the time to really process with your teams can pay off handsomely in the execution phase. We need, the time, patience and skill practice to do this well.

The last driver is Inspiration, which is about being expressive and encouraging. Do we tell the story in a compelling way that inspires people to want to come along? When people have their objections do we listen for understanding and make adjustments that encourage them to want to be a part of our project?  When they bring up disagreements, do we turn curious and listen to their whole rationale, making them feel heard, even if we choose to disagree? Do we take their good ideas and encourage them to go out and take action, be decisive, and make this project better because they are on it? These are the ways to get people to follow – by adding their own inspiration and action. It is a way of communicating that we can observe in many successful leaders and a skill we might all want to spend time on and learn to practice more effectively. Our research shows that these behaviors and skills are key for all leaders and influencers. They become more important as you lead and manage more experienced or accomplished leaders and interact with millennials.

We have seen both in our own company and with customers how misalignment can wreak havoc on performance and actively work on building these behaviors and skills ourselves.  For a free one-pager of this Vision, Alignment, Execution Model please email us at info@cisquared.net.

*Guard Rails in this context is pulled from a Leadership discussion with Ray Dalio on LinkedIN, CEO of Bridgewater Capital, the most successful HedgeFund of 11000. They have a strong focus on culture and communication.