Develop a Ruthless Consistency of Purpose

August 27, 2020

Develop a Ruthless Consistency of Purpose

Over the past 18 years, Michael Canic has coached a national championship college football team, led service quality efforts for FedEx, turned around client engagement at The Atlanta Consulting Group, and written multiple articles on business strategy. In his new book Ruthless Consistency, Canic digs into the mindset needed to create alignment and deliver on strategy. 

HR People + Strategy: How can leaders move their employees through big changes? Is it different if the changes are internal or external to the company?

Canic: Leaders need to recognize that what’s more important than anything they do is everything they do. There is no silver bullet, no one thing that reliably predicts success. Not training, not resources, not communications, not incentives, not anything else. Companies that successfully implement change make sure everything is aligned. Every decision, every action, all the arrows are consistently pointed in the right direction.

To be specific, the successful companies regularly communicate the purpose of the change, the goals associated with it, and what’s expected of each individual. They provide the necessary skills, resources and authority. They track and report on progress. They align incentives. They celebrate success. And they have the courage to hold people constructively accountable. Again, all the arrows are consistently pointed in the right direction. These companies understand that “tell ‘em and train ‘em” simply isn’t good enough. They know that any critical factor misaligned could lead to failure.

The principles and practices of consistency hold true in both internal and external cases. The difference lies is how you communicate why change is necessary. Internally-driven change requires more engagement to help people understand why the status quo is no longer acceptable. For externally-driven change—the coronavirus crisis being an obvious example—people more easily understand the need for change even if they don’t like it. Externally-driven change generally provides a more intuitive answer to the question, “Why do we have to change?”

HRPS: Why is consistency important for leaders? What about agility or innovation? 

Canic: When leaders are inconsistent, they send mixed messages. For example, when a leader trumpets excellence yet tolerates poor performance, he’s sending a mixed message. When he empowers people but then punishes them for making bad decisions, he’s sending a mixed message. When she sets goals but won’t allocate the resources required to achieve them, she’s sending a mixed message. Mixed messages demotivate people, damage a leader’s credibility and undermine strategic change. That’s why consistency is important.

To be clear, ruthless consistency doesn’t mean robotic repetition; mindless and mechanical activity performed without variation. What I’m championing is a ruthless consistency of purpose, one that is constantly projected in leaders’ decisions and actions. Because the relentless alignment of intentions, decisions and actions is the foundation of success. That’s a fundamental truth.

Ruthless consistency means that everything you do—as innovative as that might be—aligns with your intentions. It not only allows for agility and innovation, it demands it. Why? Because you’re operating in a fast-changing, ever-changing environment. New technologies emerge, customers’ needs change, processes become obsolete, practices get stale. Staying static condemns you to failure. That’s why agility and innovation are requirements of ruthless consistency, not enemies.

HRPS: You suggest that to develop and sustain the right focus, leaders stop strategic planning. Why?

Canic: It’s largely a mindset issue. The problem is that strategic planning emphasizes the wrong thing: planning. Too often, leaders think of strategy as a planning exercise with the output being a plan. Big mistake. The goal isn’t to develop a plan; the goal is to implement strategic change, to win. Equating strategy with planning is a major reason why 70 to 90 percent of so-called strategic planning exercises fail to produce real results.

It’s time we put an end to the strategic planning charade. We need to think of strategy as an ongoing, managed process. In fact, I don’t let our clients talk about strategic planning; we talk about the strategic management process, a process for assessing, developing, and executing strategy. Sure, planning is a part of the process, but it’s the not the purpose of the process. 

Unsurprisingly, we’ve found that companies that commit to a strategic management process are far more successful at turning strategy into reality. Make no mistake, it takes a serious investment of time, resources and effort. But if the strategy is well-conceived, the payoff more than justifies the investment.

HRPS: To create the right environment, why must leaders be coaches, not just managers?

Canic: It’s about helping people perform at their best. The key distinction is that coaches take responsibility for the performance of their people. Coaches ask, “What do I need to do to help my team members perform at their best? How can I help each person learn, improve and grow?” Importantly, coaches understand that different approaches work for different team members at different times. That’s why they’re constantly experimenting, determining what works and what doesn’t. For example, one person may need frequent affirmation. Another may want you to point her in the right direction and then get out of the way.

Imagine a football coach running out onto the field with his team before the start of a game. Now imagine that same coach then turns around and runs off the field, only to return at the end of the game to evaluate how each team member performed. Unfortunately, that’s how many managers manage. It’s all too easy to blame the players when the team didn’t perform well or get the desired result. Well, coach, what did you do to create a different outcome? 

HRPS: Why is it essential that leaders value people?

Canic: People who feel valued are more likely to feel good about their work, take pride in their work and perform at a higher level. They take more responsibility; they take initiative. They have a stronger sense of belonging and a deeper connection with the team. And they’re more likely to identify with a leader’s goals and work to achieve them.

I’ll admit that it took me a while to learn this as a leader. I was very task-focused: Set clear expectations, equip people, and then expect them to perform. Over time, what I learned was that while I was responsible for employees, human beings showed up to work. Valuing them as people, as individuals, enhanced their experience, their performance, and made me feel good.

Everyone wants to feel valued. They want to know their leaders respect them, trust them and care about them as individuals. It speaks to their sense of identity and it engages them at a much deeper level, a human level.

HRPS: You’ve worked in many different companies. Are the leadership challenges similar or is each unique?

Canic: Both. They are similar in that, regardless of the context, leaders fundamentally have to do three things. First, develop a clear, compelling and concise focus—what must we achieve, why, and how? Next, create an environment of engagement and performance, an environment in which team members are aligned, equipped, coached, supported and valued. Finally, build a team with the collective skills, background and traits to be successful. Develop the right focus, create the right environment and build the right team. Success always comes down to those three things, and it takes all three.

At the same time, the challenges are always somewhat unique. One reason is the difference among organizational cultures. A leader has different challenges dealing with a driven culture versus a complacent culture, or a culture that embraces accountability versus a culture that avoids it. Another reason is that competitive contexts vary. The competitive context in elite-level sports, for example, is more direct and intense than in most businesses. Each week you’re focused on a different competitor, you come face-to-face with that competitor, and the scorecard is there for everyone to see. In business, it may not always be clear which competitors you’re facing at any given time, and whether you’re winning or losing.

The challenge for leaders is to develop the right focus, create the right environment, and build the right team, yet adapt their approach to the uniqueness of the situation.

HRPS: What is the first thing that a leader can do to become ruthlessly consistent?

Canic: Test your level of commitment. Stand in front of a mirror. Ask yourself, “Do I have the will to win or the will to do what it takes to win? Am I willing to invest the time, resources and effort that it takes? Am I willing to deal with the uncertainty, pressure and discomfort? Am I willing to do what I don’t want to do and don’t like to do but know I need to do to be successful?”

Everyone says they want to win; few have the will to do what it takes to win. It all comes down to commitment.

The Authors: 

Michael Canic, Ph.D., is the author of Ruthless Consistency: How Committed Leaders Execute Strategy, Implement Change and Build Organizations That Win (September 1, 2020; McGraw Hill) and president of Making Strategy Happen.