By Maya Hu-Chan
Rowing is harder than it looks. To win a race, it takes training, commitment, mutual respect, and a shared determination to succeed within an elite rowing crew. It turns out that the same is true in business. Just like the best crews, the best business teams operate as one; completely aligned, in tune, and working toward the same goals.
If you find that you and your team are going around in circles rather than making progress toward your objectives, it is likely that your strategic alignment is off-balance. Your team is pulling in different directions, churning up the water and wasting energy instead of paddling along in the same direction and rhythm, executing the smooth, even strokes that signal success.
In reality, alignment is a practical commitment—in whatever shape or form that comes—to ensuring that everyone is on the same page and stays there. It’s about lining up both individual and collective goals, plans, and priorities—and checking in with employees regularly to make sure it’s working.
Strategic alignment is sometimes viewed as a leadership philosophy rather than a pragmatic and rigorously applied way of working across a whole business. Alignment applies to all kinds of working relationships: within teams, with customers, among executives of the business, from top to bottom—everyone.
Think about the places and teams you have worked in and how much time and energy was wasted when people were pulling in different directions or when structures and systems conspired to keep people in silos rather than collaborating. Imagine how much more would have been achieved if those individuals, teams, processes, and structures had been aligned rather than disjoined.
There’s an even greater need for alignment in global businesses, where teams may be separated by geography, time zones, and cultural norms.
Take the example of my client, Sally. She’s a project leader in a global engineering company working on large-scale construction projects such as highways and bridges.
Based at the U.S. headquarters, Sally has team members in five cities in three coun-tries. Their new project is high profile and complex—both technically and logistically. She set out a work program but, after two months, things were already behind. A combination of missed deadlines, communication mix-ups, and lack of clarity over roles and responsibilities had led to frustration and finger-pointing within the team.
Sally knew she had to change how her team worked together and align them better. She started with a simple but highly effective step. She created a short 15-minute conference call, every day at 7 a.m.—the best time given the challenges of different time zones. Attendance was mandatory; it was disciplined and ran like clockwork.“
The call allowed each team member to share their top priority for the day, check in with each other, and to keep small queries from becoming big issues. Team members were able to reach agreement then go off and do their jobs,” Sally explains. “Just as we synchronized our clocks to communicate, we synchronized our working relationships too. The result was amazing. The 15-minute alignment meeting every day made all the difference.”
Sometimes there are more fundamental, structural issues to overcome to achieve alignment. Another client of mine was a major European destination venue. Different teams were responsible for venue hire, visitor information, catering, security, building management, retail, and other aspects of the business. Each area was under pressure to be profitable, even if sometimes profitability came at the expense of other teams—such as the venue sales cutting a better deal with the customer, leaving no flexibility for the security or catering team to deliver to their best potential. Each team worked in a silo because that was how teams were measured and rewarded.
As a result, there was tension between the teams and overall profitability was below expectations.
To be truly aligned, the structure of any business needs to encourage collaboration, not scupper it. Recognizing this, my client, David, the managing director, took the decision to completely reshape how the venue was run.
“I looked at the structure and realized it was not working. How do we break up the silos and get people to work together? We created an overall profitability target and all teams worked toward the same target,” David says. “This incentivized them to collaborate—to help each other deliver their best results. At the end of the day, everybody wins.”
On this occasion the alignment was structural rather than behavioral, but the profoundness of the impact was just as realized.
Whether it’s a simple communications tool or a dramatic re-engineering of the business model, alignment can come in all shapes and sizes, but at its heart it is an attitude, a belief in the power of all pulling together, stroke by stroke, to reach a shared goal.
Another of my clients, James, is an executive in a global financial service firm with oversight of both the sales and compliance functions. These two teams were certainly not pulling together. In fact, they seemed to be absolutely determined to row in opposite directions.
Although they needed to work closely together to convert deals into firm contracts, over time a tension had grown between sales and compliance. Where did the conf lict come from? James explained, “This tension was born out of the fundamental differences in the way they worked and core skill sets within the two functions—with the sales team operating at high speed and thriving to close as many deals as possible, whilst the compliance function worked more cautiously and methodically, seeking to satisfy regulatory requirements and make sure that a deal would translate into a comprehensive and robust contract.”
The same objective, but two different pri-orities and approaches—both valuable and necessary in their own spheres but the cause of considerable conflict.
When James and I got to talking, we realized that a lack of alignment lay at the heart of the problem. Although both teams were ostensibly focused on the same commercial outcome, they neither understood nor valued the contribution of the other team. The sales team viewed compliance as being difficult and unresponsive. Compliance, on the other hand, wrote off the sales team as too quick off the mark, failing to pay attention to details that could potentially get the firm into legal trouble. Each team assumed that the other’s approach was unhelpful.
And there you have the root of the prob-lem. The cause of the lack of alignment was assumptions.
In my experience, assumption is the number 1 business sin; the destroyer of deals, the terrorizer of team dynamics. Yet it continues to pervade businesses the world over.
James and I considered the situation: The varied skills and experiences of his two teams were not only necessary but made for a vibrant and highly capable employee base. However, the clash between two dramatically different skill sets and approaches had conspired to create teams that were finding it hard to understand each other.
We worked on a plan to help bring sales and compliance together, to help them see the business through the other’s eyes and find their common ground. James employed a variety of approaches. First, leaders from both functions must lead by example. So they held regular alignment meetings to work through issues in a timely manner and communicated the solutions to their respective teams.
Second, both teams agreed on a set of behaviors when working with each other: listen before judging, meet face-to-face instead of sending emails, keep commitments, and avoid making negative comments about others. Furthermore, they held each other accountable for keeping it up, day-in and day-out. Over time this translated into the ways that they worked together on major client deals—both teams recognizing and respecting the other’s contribution.
To be truly aligned as a business you need to work with knowledge, not opinions and assumptions. By creating plenty of opportunities for open discussion, we could help create a culture of greater honesty, respect, and mutual trust.
The need for structural and behavioral alignment becomes even more acute when global team members are not sitting in the same office—sometimes not even on the same continent. Cultural and geographic differences can make straightforward collaboration much harder.
My advice? Make sure any issues are tack-led right away before they fester and make building honesty, respect, and trust your primary goal as a leader. Your investment in time and energy to achieve this will pay dividends through the performance of your team.
There are practical solutions that can work really well. Start with the simple stuff: Make sure different locations are not left out of the loop due to location or time differences. Find a time that works for everyone to make sure the whole team can connect. Use smart collaboration tools to make global team members feel closer to one another and create structures within the business that reward cross-country collaboration to avoid silos developing.
It’s not much good having a team of rowers in perfect sync if the individual up front with the loud-hailer is off the pace. Although much of what I’ve covered here relates to the leadership of others, in my experience creating alignment in any business starts with the leaders themselves.
Alignment isn’t just about making sure everyone thinks the same way you do and driving relentlessly forward. The Great Britain Olympic rowing squad has been steered into Olympic and world medal positions for the past eight years by coxswain Phelan Hill. He describes his role as part driver, part coach, and part mother-figure. He needs to set the course for victory, encourage the best performance out of the team, be aware of how everyone is feeling, and deal with challenges along the way that might require a change of course.
This perfectly describes the role of global leaders in aligning their teams. It’s about being focused on the goal, but retaining a broad perspective and being open to the need to change.
Here are five tips to achieve strategic alignment: