We were sitting in the executive boardroom, participating in a fairly routine strategic planning meeting when I had a frightening realization: it was suddenly clear the CEO did not buy into the vision for the change initiative he was leading.
I surreptitiously looked around the room. Was anyone else noticing this? I had come on board in the middle of the change process and somehow it was like the emperor’s new clothes. How had a strategy been created, and a large number of dollars invested, when the leader didn’t know where he wanted to go?
I wish this were an isolated incident, but I see it all too often: the leader has moved, sometimes aggressively, down a path about which he or she feels all too uncertain. Somewhere the strategy became misaligned with the leader’s vision and values. For a change initiative to be successful, the leader needs to do the hard work to create a vision they truly believe in and can articulate from a place of truth.
Values & Strategy
When I first entered business school, years ago, I naively expected that studying strategy would be intuitive. I presumed strategy involved the correct application of analysis tools and approaches – almost like following a recipe. Many strategy courses later I understood it was far more than that. Five forces analyses and resource-based views, and the latest jargon and models, are just the starting places. Creating and implementing good strategy is an art, not a recipe. And it most certainly requires the whole-hearted belief and vision-alignment of the senior leader.
The issues facing today’s leaders are characterized by complexity. Within this context, leaders who are grounded in a sense of their core values will be better equipped to move beyond the simple application of strategic tools and into the practice of the difficult art of strategy in the face of ambiguity and uncertainty. Standing in their own truth will give them a firmer foundation for leading others in an environment of ongoing and often rapid change.
The tools of strategy are important, but I’m convinced the soft skills of the business are equally, if not more, valuable. There is an illusion that applying certain analytic tools can help to mitigate the risk associated with leading strategic change. However, in my experience, while there’s a place for the numbers approach, it works best in combination with soft skills. In fact, the real risk of a change process often lies in failure to consider the soft skills needed to bring people along with the process. These soft skills, which are often values-based, can be crucial to long-term strategic success. At the end of the day strategy involves people, and leaders need to be able to deal with both the quantitative and people aspects of the strategy equation.
So how could a smart leader adopt a values-based approach to strategy? These four suggestions are drawn from my experience as an executive, consultant, and academic.
- Identify and create positive values alignment:
The strong movements in CSR and sustainability illustrate the desire on the part of many for alignment in being part of an organizational culture which reflects their core positive values. Leadership can be instrumental in creating such a culture. As described by Schein (2004) the role of the leader involves both being shaped by and shaping organizational culture. But to create a culture of shared values with alignment between culture, strategy and action, requires self-knowledge on the part of the leader as well as the organization.
- Plan time for reflection:
In his book From Values to Action, Harry Kraemer (2011) emphasizes the need for leaders to be reflective. In order to lead from and create a culture of shared values leaders need to know who they are and what they truly believe. This involves taking the time to reflect and know oneself and ultimately accept oneself. Self-acceptance can lead to becoming more accepting of others and being able to hear their truths as well as your own. Such openness can help leaders create a value-based culture which encourages the type of communication that facilitates best practice solutions and implementations.
- Use values as a base for cross-cultural work:
Strategic plans almost always require us to work cross-culturally – whether it’s a new market on the other side of the world, or integrating the understanding of your employees from the factory floor. In some cases, people may be motivated by the same desires, respond to the same rewards, and are excited by shared ideas. Study the values at work in the cultures of your organization, and find their connection point to your strategy. People can feel the authenticity that comes from value-alignment, even across differing languages.
- Lead from the heart:
As advocated by Kouzes and Posner (2011), leadership is an affair of the heart, and involves leaders loving what they are doing and who they are leading. I would advocate empathy as a key core value in this regard. Strategic leadership can be more effective if leaders understand their followers and can imagine what it is like to walk in their shoes. For successful strategic outcomes, empathy matters, always.
Becoming a successful strategic leader can be a difficult journey. Leadership is challenging and strategy is tough and risky. But with an alignment of core values informing strategy, there is far greater likelihood of success.
Carolyn Maraist has over 15 years experience in management consulting including strategy consulting. In addition she recently spent five years teaching at Zhejiang University in China. She is currently a director in a firm specializing in education and health care for children with special needs. She is working on a leadership curriculum project with an external provider in the educational sector. Carolyn holds a doctorate in higher education and organizational change from Benedictine University. She also holds an MBA with Honors from the University of Chicago as well as a master’s degree from Oxford University. She is pursuing a doctorate in values-based leadership at Benedictine University.
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