Even the most strategic leaders do not realize that minor misalignments at the top can have massive cascading implications for processes, priorities, and leadership across the organization. In today’s rapidly evolving business landscape, where companies often face complex challenges that require constant revision of what is at stake, it’s even worse. Even when alignment happens, it is very challenging to simultaneously execute a clear and focused strategy. Achieving both alignment and simplicity in strategic decision-making is no easy feat, especially in a tumultuous environment.
Consider the case of Unifi, an aviation services company. A few years ago, turnover amongst the senior leadership team (SLT), COVID repercussions, and a rapidly changing industry led to conflicting directions reverberating throughout the company. An initial lack of alignment among SLT members led to frequent impasses and delays in making critical decisions. The company’s journey to refocus on how it approached decision-making and teamwork holds valuable lessons for any company facing the common challenges of industry transformation or uncertainty.
I interviewed Unifi’s current chief commercial officer and former chief strategy officer, Ying McPherson, who shared valuable insights into how her organization’s leadership changed how it operates.
Traditional approaches tend to address the complexity of the environment with complicated processes and tools meant to achieve stability. While their intentions are positive, those approaches are unfortunately no longer sufficient to respond dynamically in an unpredictable world. While it can be tempting to match the complexity of the external environment with a complex strategy that covers every possibility, a simplified approach can turn out to be much more effective. And focusing on fewer key, critical goals can result in streamlined operations and increased clarity, engagement, and cohesion throughout the organization.
Behind this simplification is a very important insight: prioritizing alignment over process.
Any leader will recognize that times of chaos and uncertainty can cause division among teams. When roles are unclear or individual goals are pitted against each other, it can result in finger-pointing and conflicting commitments even when everyone strives for maximum efficiency.
McPherson explained that the first step in combatting this division is to emphasize the importance of alignment over process. While efficient processes are valuable, they are only effective when supported by a united team. By fostering alignment and ensuring every team member understands the “why” and “how” of their actions, it’s more likely that operational success will follow. This evolves into a sense of co-accountability that eliminates finger-pointing and creates collective responsibility for the company’s success.
“It’s similar to playing a team sport,” McPherson says. “You have to play your position—that’s your job. But if the team isn’t winning, it doesn’t matter how well you play your position.” By focusing on collective goals rather than individual achievements, your organization will experience improved collaboration and a shared commitment to drive results.
One silver lining of financial pressures is their ability to streamline operations and decisions. Prioritizing and eliminating non-essential projects and initiatives can be challenging, but streamlining is the path to a simpler strategy.
Unifi’s organization went from managing 23 projects to focusing on three key goals each quarter. McPherson told me, “We learned the lesson the hard way,” says McPherson. “But now that we’ve streamlined decision-making, alignment has improved.” Simplifying strategy into a limited number of clear goals allows every member of the organization to concentrate efforts on what truly matters and to avoid diluting resources. Remember Michael Porter’s strategic advice: “The essence of strategy is choosing what not to do.”
Once you’ve set your key goals, it’s helpful to establish a disciplined approach to decision-making and meeting priorities to ensure everyone stays focused. Regular communication about your company’s overarching goals should become an integral part of team meetings. McPherson recommends the theories from Good to Great, Built to Last, and How the Mighty Fall by Jim Collins.
Make it a routine to ask three key questions related to your strategy: 1) Are we still passionate about doing this? 2) Is the purpose still the same? 3) Can it make money in today’s environment? By dedicating intentional time and attention to discussing progress and challenges related to the primary goals, your team will foster a culture of shared accountability and commitment. “We try to do this monthly at the SLT levels and at least quarterly for the broader leadership teams.” An emphasis on alignment and transparency can cut down distractions and maintain a sharper focus on your strategic objectives.
Building a culture of alignment requires consistent effort and strong leadership. In a pyramid effect, the attitudes and decisions adopted at the leadership level usually spread to the rest of the team. Teams where leaders are well-aligned, tend to be more engaged and collaborative.
Unifi saw members organizing cross-functional lunch-and-learns on their own. In teams where leaders weren’t fully aligned, team members were more isolated and stuck to their independent work. At their heart, organizations are composed of people. Increased collaboration, cross-functional partnering, and improved relationships foster a sense of cohesion and unity. The result is a more engaged and focused workforce that shares a common purpose and works together towards achieving shared goals.
Unifi’s transformative journey and McPherson’s reflections serve as a crucial reminder: even in the face of the toughest challenges, strategic simplicity and robust alignment can pave the path to success. “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger!” advises McPherson. Chaos and adversity can become an opportunity for growth and transformation, but not if your organization gets lost in them.
Claudio Garcia is president of Outthinker Strategy Networks, a global network of strategy executives from large organizations committed to staying ahead of the pace of change. Previously, Claudio was executive vice president at Lee Hecht Harrison. Claudio teaches Global Management and International Human Resources Management at New York University’s School of Professional Studies.