It’s that time of year again – the season of strategic planning. Seemingly on autopilot, many leaders guide their organizations into this phase annually. Sometimes this is warranted due to things like budgeting needs, but let’s pause for a second. Does assessing strategy on this particular annual rhythm make sense for how your unique business operates? Are you doing this because you think you should? Do you have clarity on your why? While we believe that, big picture, long-term planning is necessary, we also think it can generate unnecessary pressure. It’s time to rethink how leaders approach setting their businesses – and more importantly their people – up for success.
Often, strategic planning sessions are designed to generate a lot of ideas that turn into a laundry list of goals. On the surface, this activity might feel inclusive, energizing, and effective to some members of the team. After all, we live in a culture that values a “more is better” approach to productivity.For others on the team – especially those who are naturally more introverted or who prefer to execute – meetings like this deplete energy or cause confusion. Too often after these sessions, enthusiasm wanes rapidly. People return to their routine and list of tasks. New goals, on top of everything else, quickly transform from exciting to overwhelming.True strategic planning is not a game of volume – it’s an exercise in focus. Consider the possibility that it could feel better if the team rallied around three key objectives, for example, and maybe even achieving them by October. Not only would that be a reason to celebrate, but it would also allow time to relax and think about new goals with renewed energy and creativity.
First and foremost, question the assumption: does my company really need more strategic planning right now? Where is my team in relation to fatigue, burnout, and alignment? Have we recently changed several things and need to focus on implementing instead? Maybe strategy could be more consistently assessed, rather than one moment in time.The core beliefs of the founder and/or CEO can also have a huge impact on strategic planning. Ask yourself, where is my energy right now as a leader? We recently had a meeting with a CEO who felt extremely burned out and undercompensated, but they were placing every other stakeholder’s needs ahead of their own, which in turn were driving the company’s strategic objectives. We all agreed that this leader’s wellbeing is a strategic priority, if not THE strategic priority, but most leaders would hesitate to say that. It’s tough for some leaders to extricate their self-worth from the success of their business, and it’s not an overnight fix (we have Glowe Accelerators who can guide these CEOs when they’re ready!). Strategy must flow from a grounded leader who’s fully leveraging their creative brilliance. This process is foundational for the wellbeing of the business.
The second thing to consider before diving in is whether you need time to align around a company-wide strategic initiative, or if the work is actually part of someone's specific job description. Sometimes, we get so focused on including all of leadership, what we end up doing is setting their individual goals for their day-to-day jobs and calling them strategic initiatives. This is not time and energy well-spent. Once the strategy is set, these leaders should be empowered to articulate the goals for their teams that clearly ladder up. It begs the question – do we have clarity about the difference between a strategic initiative and a goal for the year?If after some solid reflection, you decide that your business would benefit from a strategic planning process, then…
Who do you want in the room versus who you think should be there? Someone’s title alone may not be the right reason to include them. If you decide to include a large, diverse mix of people, are there real opportunities for them to be seen and heard? What information do those attending need to review or prepare in advance to make the time spent together most effective? What process can you implement to ensure that all voices, from the most junior to senior, are heard and valued in equal measure? Does everyone understand the purpose and your expectations? What’s the plan for accountability after the meeting?
Recently, we were working with a company that was preparing for their annual strategic planning meeting. In the spirit of inclusivity, they asked each of their business line leads to come prepared to share their ideas for what the business’s priorities should be. However, these had already been set and approved by the CEO, COO and the Board for the following year – it was already pretty clear what the focus would be. While they intended to create a process to delegate and listen, the C-suite couldn’t articulate the greater why. They had already spent time creating and prioritizing their primary goals. Even more strategic discussions seemed an unnecessary distraction from growing the business.
Yes, a lot of preparation is required from you as a leader beforehand, but finding clarity on the why – and then communicating it clearly – is energy well spent.
What does the Board require of you? What do other stakeholders expect? What are the financial realities? As mentioned above, demonstrating openness to ideas is essential, but only if they have a place to go. If you ask your team to brainstorm broadly, and they get excited about infeasible ideas, that can lead to frustration. Sometimes it’s more realistic and authentic for a small group of leaders who understand the constraints to set the strategy for other leaders to feed into. Constraints can actually enhance creativity by enabling an environment that favors focus over volume.
Ultimately, your final list of true strategic priorities should be clear and concise. While this isn’t the time to figure out every minute detail, it is important to think about any impacts on the business. How does this align with your budget? Do any new responsibilities disproportionately fall on the shoulders of 2-3 people? Do you have the right people in the right roles, do they understand how their roles connect to the strategic vision, and do they have the resources they need to thrive? Who on your team will be accountable for rolling out changes, and how can you protect their time to do this well? Aligning these factors will give everyone a clear sense of how they contribute to the greater purpose of your business – a wellspring of energy for your team.
Better strategic planning begins with asking yourself the right questions. Imagine taking a step outside of your business and looking inside – from that lens, what would you see? What do you think your organization really needs that aligns with the vision? Can you give yourself permission to do what you perceive is needed for your business, instead of what other leaders seem to be doing?Trust your intuition about what work is really needed right now. When an organization gets strategic planning right, great things happen. People align with and feel motivated by the greater why of the company, and consequently they feel closer to each other as teammates. Done well, you can harness this precious time into powerful action.
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