The Secret to Organizational Alignment: Becoming an Alignment Leader

July 13, 2017

The Secret to Organizational Alignment: Becoming an Alignment Leader

Organization alignment is a coveted and sought after state of affairs for organizations and leaders. Imagine an organization whose work, structure, metrics, people, rewards, and culture are all optimally aligned to carry out the organization’s strategy. (Obviously not a reality, but we’ve seen some organizations come close). Whoever reaches this state of organizational nirvana has surely arrived.

Effective leaders...see organization alignment as...their most important work.

But how do organizations get there? How do organizations become aligned in ways that virtually guarantee achievement of organizational goals and sustainable marketplace success? The answer to these questions is that their leaders have worked hard to align the choices of the organization to strategy; they have made tough decisions, and they have driven change throughout the business and developed others in the company to do the same. They have become “alignment leaders.” Alignment leaders have mastered four key traits:
 

  • Alignment leaders adopt an alignment mentality when thinking about the organization and work hard to maintain the alignment of the organization’s choices.
     
  • Alignment leaders understand that choices and trade-offs need to be made. It is impossible for an organization to do everything or to meet the needs of every stakeholder.
     
  • Alignment leaders drive change in the organization’s choices and in the behaviors of the individuals that make up the organization.
     
  • Alignment leaders build these same alignment leader capabilities in others. tTey don’t try to do it alone.

 

Alignment leaders know that organization alignment is achieved when they can think systemically about an organization. Unfortunately, too many leaders equate organizations with organization charts or structures. While the structure is an important part of the organization there is much more going on “under the hood.” Organizations are systems of choices dealing with strategy, work, structure, metrics/information, people/rewards and culture/leadership practices. When leaders take the time to look at their organization from a systemic standpoint they are able to pinpoint and diagnose misalignments and make alignment-producing adjustments.

 

Alignment leaders are good at both systemic diagnosis and leading the changes required for mitigating the performance gaps that organization misalignments cause. Effective leaders do not see organization alignment as a small detour from their regular work, but instead treat it as their most important work. Work that never really ends, but that continues to evolve as market conditions and business performance changes.

 

Alignment leaders have come to understand that saying no is more important than saying yes. They understand the power of clearly defined strategies that allow the organization to ruthlessly say no to activities that don’t bring them significantly closer to their goals. Jack Dorsey, the CEO of Square, sees himself as the Chief Editor of his organization. By editor, Jack means that “there are a thousand things that we could be doing but there’s only one or two that are important.” When leaders refine their ability to make purposeful choices and are aware of tradeoffs they bring their organizations closer to alignment and embody the organization’s strategy. Apple puts this dimension of alignment leadership this way, “There are a thousands ‘nos’ for every ‘yes.’ We spend a lot of time on a few great things.”

 

Alignment leaders look to engage and align the heads, hearts and hands of employees and other stakeholders when unleashing real change. They understand that employees and stakeholders need to understand why choices in the organization are changing in order for them to buy in and become advocates for change. Effective leaders also provide clearly defined limits to what will and won’t change. Finally, they provide employees and stakeholders with the tools they will need to implement and carry out change successfully. Good leaders become great leaders when they respect the work that is involved in change and truly lead the organization through the uncertain periods of change when outcomes are not clear, careers seem to be in flux, and when the inertia of the current organization’s choices and thinking threaten to derail change efforts.

 

Finally, alignment leaders understand that organizational alignment can be achieved and recalibrated much faster as more people become alignment leaders. When organizations are filled with people who speak the language of alignment, know the importance of tradeoffs, think systemically, become change agents, and develop more alignment leaders the organization will become aligned (and stay that way even when the winds blow and the sands shift). Organization alignment is the product of great leaders who understand the importance of alignment and work to become alignment leaders.

 

If you know someone who is an alignment leader, partner with them. If you know someone who is trying to be an alignment leader, help them. If you know someone who is developing other alignment leaders, learn from them. If you are a leader striving to become a better alignment leader, stick with it—sustainable, positive organization performance awaits.

 
The Authors: 

Reed Deshler is a former HR executive, organization design practice leader, and author of Mastering the Cube: Overcoming Stumbling Blocks and Building an Organization that Works. He has worked with leaders in  top organizations, including General Electric, 3M, Benjamin Moore Paints, Southern California Edison, Consumers Energy, Hertz, Black & Veatch, TVNZ, American Family Insurance, and Honeywell to clarify strategy, align organization choices, and manage change. Reed has facilitated numerous strategic and tactical planning processes for SBUs and BUs leading to significant operational efficiencies and cost savings. He can be reached at reed.deshler@alignorg.com.

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