3 Ways to Improve Your Strategic Thinking

You may have heard the story of the truck that was immovably stuck under a bridge and how the solution came from an unlikely source. If you don’t know it, I’ll share it at the end of this newsletter.

I was thinking about this story when recalling a professional meeting where the topic was developing a global mindset. One of the speakers was talking about their company’s research showing that experiencing another culture has a significant impact on one’s strategic thinking. “Experiencing” didn’t mean going there on a vacation. It was an immersive, longer-term experience, like ex pat assignments or managing a global team where you had to travel to work within their culture somewhat regularly.

The speaker noted that these assignments have this profound impact because they challenge your perceptions and perspectives of the world. These different perspectives allow you to be more nuanced in your thinking about how different parts of a whole interact, the variables that impact it, and the resulting implications. Your competitors are increasingly global, not just national or local. Therefore, such experiences help you to think more like (and outthink) your competitors, to anticipate trends, and to consider solutions and strategies from a broader array of possibilities.

How, then, can you stretch your perspectives to help develop your strategic thinking when working globally isn’t a possibility (or, at least, not yet)?

  • Regularly interact with people in a different function or area of the company. Marketers and engineers don’t think alike. Operations people think differently than researchers. See how someone different from you may experience the same issues or the organization itself.
  • Interact with those outside your industry.  For years, benchmarking was the buzzword when you wanted to get a more strategic perspective and to gain some competitive advantage. Benchmarking is often practiced with a closed-system approach. Life science companies benchmark other life science companies. Tech firms benchmark other tech firms. That’s important, but it’s also somewhat limiting, especially in a world where industries and disciplines are bleeding together like never before. The perspective of someone in a different industry about your issue or situation will cause you to think about the variables and interactions more broadly, more strategically. One of the things that made Steve Jobs so successful at product design was that he included perspectives he gained from things as diverse as digital animation, calligraphy and architecture.

When we hire people who are mostly like ourselves we multiply our strengths… but also our weaknesses and blind spots.

  • Hire people who are different from you. We’re all familiar with research which shows that diverse organizations are generally more successful. In addition to the typical diversity categories we’re used to thinking about (gender, race, age, etc.) we should look for diversity of thought, experience, and education, among many other factors. When we hire people who are mostly like ourselves, we multiply our strengths… but also our weaknesses and blind spots. Make sure to regularly ask those you’ve hired for their perspective and input on the business issues you are working to address.

Thinking about your daily business interactions expansively will help you develop the broader perspective needed for strategic thinking.

So, the story of the truck goes like this. The top of the truck was wedged against the underside of a bridge, and it could go neither forward nor backward. It just wouldn’t budge. Traffic was backed up and police and tow trucks were trying to figure out how to get it out. A little boy walked up and asked what was going on.  The police officer explained the dilemma. The little boy looked at him and said, “let the air out of the tires.”

10 Things that Keep You from Hiring Great People

Over the years, one of our most popular workshops is Accelerated Hiring.  That’s because hiring great people is one of the toughest and most impactful of leadership responsibilities.  A lot of hiring mistakes are self-inflicted.  Some are a function of the organization’s approach (or lack thereof).  As we come out of the Covid pandemic in the coming months, hiring will take off, and the competition for top talent will seem like a contact sport.

I love this article by Lou Adler about the 10 Things Managers Intentionally Do to Avoid Hiring Great People.  We address almost all of these in Accelerated Hiring.  See if any of these 10 things resonate with you:

  1. Filter candidates on skills and experience
  2. Target the wrong talent pool with the wrong message
  3. Using compensation to save time but prevent the best from being evaluated
  4. Looking for the person to fit the “perfect” job rather than modifying the job to fit the “perfect” person.
  5. Use of generic traits
  6. Believe gut feelings, first impressions and that the “halo effect” predicts performance
  7. Allow a hiring in your own image mentality to exist
  8. Use gladiator voting
  9. Accept a safe “no” vote with no proof that it’s justified
  10. Don’t make hiring managers responsible

Even the most experienced leaders can find it challenging when it comes to making such a critical talent decision.  Are you guilty of any of these?

Alignment + Agility = Competitive Advantage

Our previous two articles talked about creating alignment for success in 2021. First, your organization (and your teams) need a clearly articulated North Star and strategic clarity. Second, it is imperative to build a culture that reinforces alignment between how you work and what you aim to achieve. Alignment is essential for success. However, agility – in addition to alignment – will lead to competitive advantage.

Alignment without agility is stagnation.

Agility without alignment is chaos.

Over the past year, rapid response and breakneck adaptation have been watchwords for successful businesses in the COVID environment. The pace of that agile response has left people exhausted and organizations risking burnout among their teams. Some organizations have been changing so quickly that they have prioritized adaptation too highly. They are no longer aligned with or certain about their business strategy. And some feel they no longer recognize their culture. In a deep and dire emergency, business survival trumps culture.  Nevertheless, it has its negative consequences.

On the other hand, some of my clients are already worried that, as we approach a post-pandemic world, the desire for a sense of “normalcy” and decompression will result in a temporary, but dangerous stagnation. It could be very tempting to feed the longing for some stability, and focus too heavily on alignment, deprioritizing agility.

And therein lies the conundrum. Organizations that build and maintain competitive advantage create a balance between two competing elements: alignment and agility. It can be convincingly argued that the benefits of agility are only achieved within the context of ongoing alignment with strategy and culture. It is also a fact that change and alignment are, at their core, competing forces that require constant attention.

How can you create alignment and agility within your team?

  • Clearly focus on only a handful of strategic imperatives. And don’t assume clarity. Revisit those imperatives regularly with your team and discuss how the team’s work contributes to them. Use them as your guardrails.
  • Help strategy bubble up from the bottom.  People in the organization who are closer to the customers, operations and technologies often see opportunities and threats more quickly than executives do. In my HBR article, “5 Behaviors of Leaders Who Embrace Change”, I shared these two ideas for building this capability in your team:
    • Make opportunity-seeking part of the regular conversation. Simply asking questions like “What are our customers talking about? What do you think they will want a year or two from now? What new trends do you think will impact us?” sends the message that looking ahead is important. And that you value their input.
    • Advertise successes. Nothing breeds success like success. Tell the stories at company events and recognize team members who are looking ahead and identifying opportunities. Demonstrate that the status quo is not enough anymore.
  • Encourage experimentation and learn from failure:  Too often, traditional organizations’ first response to a risk is to ask, “Why?” Change agility requires leaders to ask “why not?” and to establish opportunities for pilots, prototypes, and experimentation. Experimentation is an integral part of R&D. While an overall strategy informs the researchers’ focus, any R&D scientist will tell you that there are sometimes dozens of experiments that don’t get results and that, without those failures, they wouldn’t have been able to find the successes.
  • Reallocate resources with discipline.  As Sulls’ and Homkes research found, organizations tend to move too slowly or move quickly but lose sight of the strategy. I consulted to an organization a few years ago where moving too quickly without discipline was hampering their ability to achieve results. The CEO had started the company and was the classic early-stage entrepreneur; extremely responsive to market needs, ready and willing to change strategy, and endlessly shifting resources. However, the company was not early stage anymore and this nearly sole focus on agility led to a complete lack of follow-through, very little alignment and was seriously impacting results. The board removed him and named a new CEO who added a new level of discipline to resource allocation through a combination of centralized oversight and distributed decision-making.

Start 2021 with the ideas we’ve discussed in these three articles – defining your North Star, creating strategic clarity, building a strong culture and creating aligned agility – and you will have improved your ability to thrive.

The 3rd Key to Better Results in 2021

Everyone wants a competitive advantage. In our last article, we talked about the critical nature of purpose (a North Star) and strategic clarity. They provide much needed direction in a time of change and uncertainty. The third key to better results in 2021 is culture. And it’s considered by many to be the most important.

Peter Drucker famously said “Culture eats strategy for breakfast” and research supports that assertion. Just a couple examples:

Culture is what bonds people together (or doesn’t) – and it usually determines how effectively you pursue strategy. Whether your organization or team will be remote, blended or back in the office, one of your 2021 priorities should be ensuring your culture is positioning you to take advantage of opportunities.


Just Words on a Page?
Culture is often defined in terms of published values (or principles, philosophy, ideals). These statements are meant to guide the actions and decisions of employees throughout the organization. Do those statements actually create culture? The answer is no. Sull, Turconi, and Sull researched the correlation between 9 of the most frequently stated company values and how well the companies lived up to those values in their employees’ eyes. The correlation between the published values and actual values were very weak for all, and negative for four of them.  As the saying goes, “don’t pay attention to what they say, pay attention to what they do.”

Culture is a Reflection
It reflects how we actually navigate our relationships… with employees, peers, customers and business partners.  Culture is about where we spend our time. Do we spend more time fixing client problems than anticipating them, more time penalizing people for mistakes than recognizing effective behavior? Should we spend more time on service, on innovation or on building value? Ultimately, culture is the collective nature of what we value as a company. And it’s not what we write on a piece of paper, but what we do. Every. single. day.

Build, Maintain and Adapt Intentionally
Our behavior is how we define, demonstrate, and continually recreate culture. As a leader, what actions should you take to build a culture that supports peak performance?

Start with your North Star and strategy: 
Purpose and strategic clarity need to be defined and communicated regularly. They provide the context and direction for the culture choices the company makes.

Align it with the company’s brand:
 Your brand is how your company is perceived and experienced by the customer and other stakeholders.  David Matting, Head of Trends and Insights for TrendWatching notes “There’s really no such thing as internal culture anymore. Your culture is always public, and it’s your most powerful, public-facing asset or liability.” It’s difficult to tell the market you are, for example, positioned around an outstanding customer experience when your business doesn’t support an outstanding employee experience.

Define the behaviors that epitomize values.
 Values are often stated as words or phrases like ‘act with integrity’ or ‘delight the customer’. What does that look like? Define the behaviors that epitomize those values. By watching how people behave, what they say and what decisions and trade-offs are made, any leader or employee should be able to say what your culture is.

Connect roles and work to purpose
.  What does a salesperson, developer, machine operator or the CEO do (and not do) that represents the best in your culture? Go beyond traditional job descriptions and define how that role connects to the purpose and culture. Hire for those attributes; expect them, celebrate them and reward them.

Actively and regularly assess.
Whether through surveys, focus groups or an assessment by an external consultant, regularly take a step back and assess how well people in your organization understand the cultural goals.

According to Gallup, Only 41% of employees strongly

agree that they know what their company stands for

and what makes it different from competitors

Leaders also should be asking how well their teams reflect the stated culture. It’s easy for employees and leaders alike to become unmoored from cultural goals. An honest look will continue to position your culture as a competitive advantage, including when it comes to attracting talent.


Adapt in real time.
 Change can’t wait. When the culture no longer represents who the organization or team should be, adapt it to meet changing needs.
By defining your North Star, creating strategic clarity, and intentionally focusing on culture, you are well on your way to creating competitive advantage and an ability to take advantage of the opportunities presented in 2021.

The Two Keys to Better Results in 2021

In these first few weeks of 2021 one thing is abundantly clear – change, disruption and challenge are going to be with us for the foreseeable future. It’s time to move beyond survival mode and figure out how to thrive. Simplicity and focus are key. The organizations and teams that create sustained alignment, keep engagement high and outperform their competition will start 2021 answering two questions:

What is our North Star?
How will we create and maintain strategic clarity?

Without a clear purpose and understanding of what continues to be important in a rapidly changing environment, work becomes fractured, misaligned and frustrating. Recently, McKinsey examined how 30 top companies are preparing for the future. 83% are taking bold moves around their purpose, their North Star. Research by LSA Global shows that strategic clarity accounts for 31% of the difference between high and low performance in terms of revenue growth, profitability, customer loyalty, leadership effectiveness and employee engagement. Research also tells us that finding meaning – having purpose, a North Star – is a universal intrinsic motivator.

Answering “What Is Our North Star?” Provides Clear Purpose

For centuries, travelers have navigated by the North Star. No matter the circumstance, it was a constant in the night sky. It is the answer to the questions, “why do we exist?  What is our purpose?” With today’s unpredictability and the need for agility, your North Star defines the constant core that will drive strategy, priorities and decisions. Without a North Star, agility becomes chaos. Decision-making and priority setting are reactive, siloed and lack alignment.
Defining the North Star should start with the executive team but not end there. Share the definition. Ask what resonates and what’s missing. Create a short statement that is understandable, memorable and defines the essence of why the organization exists. If the statement sounds something like “to increase shareholder value,” keep asking “is that really the core of who we are? Is our purpose larger than that?” Test how simple and memorable it is. After broad and intentional communication, ask 10 random people what the North Star is. If it’s not consistent, you have more work to do.

Strategic Clarity Provides the Map

Strategic clarity follows from strategic simplicity.
Donald Sull, a global authority on strategy execution, recommends three questions that create simplicity and actionable clarity  out of complex strategies.
  • What are your critical business drivers?
  • What are the 3-5 challenges we need to overcome to succeed in 2021?
  • What are our must-win battles?
I add one more question that I believe is essential in today’s environment:
  • How will we keep ahead of or quickly be responsive to changes that occur?

Answering the first three questions brings clarity to targets and daily choices. Why did we choose these targets and those activities? For example, why is our target 3 % growth instead of 5% growth? Why are we focused on digital transformation? Sure, it’s to stay competitive; but specifically, HOW will it help your organization? What business strategies will it support? Can everyone in the organization explain strategy and how it manifests in their function, and in their role? If not, some of your people may be rowing in the wrong direction.

The final question recognizes that change will remain constant and that as we address the challenges and must-win battles, tactics may need to be altered or changed completely. It tells people we recognize that change will occur and leveraging it (instead of fearing it) is how we succeed.
In 2021 we’ll have our next new normal. My prediction is that many people will still feel like their organization’s goals have little connection to their work because things have shifted… again.
By having a North Star and simplifying your strategy to create clarity, your team will be better aligned and more engaged.

Our Most Read LinkedIn Articles of 2020

As we all welcome 2021, we thought we’d look back to 2020 and some of our most-read LinkedIn articles.


COVID has taught us that we can and must be able to change rapidly, to transform on the fly if need be. We’ve had no choice but to go more completely digital, transforming our customer, employee, student and supplier experiences. Truly listening with empathy, and being agile became key not just for leaders, but for everyone. Change can’t just be a priority for a few people at the top. It needs to be a priority for everyone. And, honestly, that’s kind of exciting. 

1. 10 𝑻𝒊𝒑𝒔 𝒕𝒐 𝑯𝒆𝒍𝒑 𝒀𝒐𝒖𝒓 𝑻𝒆𝒂𝒎 𝒊𝒏 𝒂 𝑫𝒊𝒔𝒓𝒖𝒑𝒕𝒆𝒅 𝑬𝒏𝒗𝒊𝒓𝒐𝒏𝒎𝒆𝒏𝒕: http://bit.ly/3q8oMg

2. 𝑺𝒊𝒍𝒗𝒆𝒓 𝑳𝒊𝒏𝒊𝒏𝒈𝒔 𝒐𝒇 𝑪𝒐𝒗𝒊𝒅 19: http://bit.ly/3qbjpi0

3. 𝑻𝒉𝒆 𝑴𝒐𝒓𝒆 𝑻𝒉𝒊𝒏𝒈𝒔 𝑪𝒉𝒂𝒏𝒈𝒆… 𝒕𝒉𝒆 𝑴𝒐𝒓𝒆 𝑾𝒆 𝑵𝒆𝒆𝒅 𝒕𝒐 𝑳𝒆𝒂𝒏 𝒐𝒏 𝒕𝒉𝒆 𝑭𝒖𝒏𝒅𝒂𝒎𝒆𝒏𝒕𝒂𝒍𝒔: http://bit.ly/39uetOF


NextBridge partners with you to create and execute pragmatic, sustainable business solutions. Please let us know how we can help you in 2021.

Conversations On The Curve: Bob Kelleher

Boost Your Team’s Engagement

Employee engagement is a challenge even in the best of times. This year, Gallup shows only 36% of US employees are engaged. Why does this matter? Companies with high levels of engagement are 21% more profitable and 22% more productive.

One of the complicating factors this year is the unprecedented change in the economy and how work is getting done. So, what does employee engagement mean in a virtual world? How do I, as a leader, meet the challenge of engaging my team at a time when stress and distractions are so high?

In this interview, Edith talks with Bob Kelleher, a leading expert in employee engagement, and founder of The Employee Engagement Group.

Here’s our conversation!

To learn more about Bob Kelleher, click here.

 

7 Tips for Better Virtual Reviews

Most managers have a hard enough time communicating with their team members. And doing so virtually is even harder. But there’s still good news for delivering that performance review virtually. A few basic techniques will go a long way to easing the difficulty.


Just like in-person reviews, the key to successful virtual reviews is to focus on the conversation.  It should be a dialogue between you and your team member that is focused on helping this individual perform at the highest level possible, to build on their strengths and support their development.  Here are 7 tips to make your virtual reviews effective.

1. Provide the review ahead of time. Give the person at least an hour or two to look at it prior to your conversation. That provides enough time for them to process the information and get beyond any initial reactions. They can “walk into” the meeting more composed, with thoughts and questions more fully formed.

2. Set the stage. Put aside your Zoom fatigue and use video (not the phone) so that the conversation feels as much like in-person as possible. If you usually rely on others to manage video calls, do a dry run so you’re able to focus on the discussion, not the technology. Know what you’re doing to do if there are connection issues. Reschedule as a video call, not a phone call.

3. Start with empathy. Begin the conversation by recognizing 2020 has been challenging and talk about specific challenges the individual has faced. Ask how they are doing (yes, even if you asked them that last week – you want to build empathy as part of the virtual conversation). 96% of employees believe showing empathy is an important way to advance employee retention. 92% believe it remains undervalued. Empathy will make a virtual conversation go more smoothly.

4. Focus on strengths.  Recognize their hard work. A great deal of research shows that managers and organizations should focus the majority of their feedback on a person’s strengths. The 80/20 rule on the ratio of positive to “corrective” feedback might look more like 90/10 this year. Of course, poor performers will require a higher ratio of “corrective” feedback. But if you go a bit easier on most people’s performance than you might normally, it will pay off in 2021.

5. Listen carefully. Active listening is harder on a zoom call. But it builds trust and shows respect. Employees who feel their voice is heard are 4.6 times more likely to feel empowered to perform their best work. Don’t interrupt. Allow the other person time to respond. Remember there can be video delay.

6. Don’t shortchange the review. We’re all tired of endless video calls. For many, they’re more taxing than face-to-face meetings. It will be tempting to create a shorter than normal agenda or rush through the meeting. Resist that temptation. Especially in a year that requires a little more managerial TLC.

7. Beware of an office bias. If you have a split office/remote team, remember that many managers still have a bias toward people who work on site. In a year where many people don’t have a choice, it’s important to not penalize people for their work arrangements.

7 Ways to Make Performance Review Discussions Easier… and More Effective

Performance management is a source of some frustration for most managers, especially having the “dreaded” review discussion. There are ways to make that conversation both easier and more effective.


It’s that time of the year again.  No, not the holidays.  Performance review and annual goal setting time. Many people dread performance reviews.  That dread is exacerbated this year by the exceptional circumstances we’ve all been living through.  It’s too bad this sense of dread is so prevalent. Performance reviews and feedback could be easier and more effective, if we reframe our thinking. Here are 7 tips to make performance reviews easier and more effective:

1. Change the label. The term “performance review” or “performance management” conjures up images of passing judgement on a person’s performance, on their worth. A “performance and development conversation” is a two-way dialogue. We are sharing perspectives, insights and ideas. It’s a partnership. How we talk with our team members can put people more at ease.

2. Change the focus. Make the review all about developing your team member. The focus of performance conversations should not be primarily about the rating we are giving someone or justifying a salary increase. It’s an opportunity to help this individual perform at the highest level possible, to build on their strengths and support their development. According to McKinsey, superior talent is up to eight times more productive than average employees.  The more time and sincere effort you invest in your employee’s development, the higher the return.

3. Start with empathy. Ask about the challenges and realities the person is experiencing – balancing work and child-care, caring for an elderly parent, managing remote or hybrid learning or just the loneliness of being remote. Ask at the beginning of the review. Even if you asked last week. You want to establish empathy as part of the review. Why? Besides being a good thing to do? Among employees who said they feel cared for by their employer, 94% say they feel personally engaged in their work compared to 43% of those who don’t. Furthermore, according to IBM research, organizations that score in the  top 25% of employee experience report nearly 3x the return on assets and double the return on sales when compared to organizations in the bottom 25%.

4. Simplify. Start with a high-level narrative that summarizes past performance, development needs and goals. Then launch into the review. But don’t just read it together. Instead, think about using these five questions to drive conversation:

  • What accomplishments are you most proud of?
  • How well are you achieving your current goals?
  • How do goals need to change to meet new business strategy or goals?
  • How are your actions aligning with our values and culture?
  • What do you need to continue doing because you are doing it well? What do you need to stop doing because it’s not effective? What do you need to start doing instead?
5. Redefine accountabilities. In light of the exceptionally difficult year, we will want to remember to reframe our expectations. For example, is it realistic to think a salesperson will have the same level of sales as they did last year? 

6. Talk about expectations and reality.  
Discuss how those expectations can be managed against the realities mentioned above.  Ask for the individual’s thoughts on it. 

7. Focus not just on what was achieved but how it was achieved. 
For example, in remote environments, collaboration is more important but can be more difficult. Make sure people are clear on what is important for success.

Performance Reviews: 4 Tips for Better Strategic Alignment

Most managers and employees don’t know their own organization’s strategic goals. So, whether you’re reviewing a middle manager or a front-line supervisor, there are good reasons to make the discussion more strategic.  For starters, you’ll have more productive and effective leaders on your team; along with higher engagement and retention of key talent.   Here are 4 ways to make that happen.

These tips are designed primarily for immediate impact with your team members in their upcoming reviews, not for how you conduct the entire performance management process.  But if you carry these ideas into your ongoing feedback and coaching regimen next year, you’ll continue to build a team that delivers more value for the organization and helps each of them build more fulfilling careers.

Make business strategy and priorities central to the discussion.  Even executives sometimes lose the forest for the trees when it comes to appraisals.  In a conversation there is a tendency to focus on specific goals or behaviors rather than how they contribute to achieving the strategy itself.  Create an opening narrative for your discussion that provides an overview of your team member’s performance in light of your organization’s strategy. Then keep referring back to strategy as you break into specific content.

Have a conversation.  Shared responsibility for the discussion feels more engaging and will increase ownership of the results.  Asking questions is always an effective leadership skill.  Here it pays extra dividends.  How clear is your direct report on the business strategy and her role in making that happen?  What you’re looking for here is a way to frame up the discussion of their performance in a strategic way, even as you’re gaining information on how they perceive their performance and its alignment to strategy.

  • What business priorities do you think you made the biggest contributions to this year? Why?
  • Which of your goals do you feel was most aligned with (for example) client retention, and how so?
  • Which of next year’s business goals do you think our team will impact the most?  How do you see yourself supporting that goal?
  • What skill development would help you be a more strategic asset to the organization?
Make strategic alignment explicit.  That means drawing a straight line from strategy to business function to their role and finally, their goals.  For example… “John, you’ll recall that another one of our company’s biggest priorities this year has been to retain our biggest clients in the face of the pandemic.  One of our jobs was to provide systems enhancements that allowed for higher volumes of online traffic.  And I asked you to make that happen by getting your team to…”  Your most strategically plugged-in team members may require a lighter touch, but it’s important to be certain they’re fully aware how much their performance impacts specific organizational priorities.  And to keep it at the forefront of their mind.

Motivate with strategic involvement.  Explain how their future performance will impact their ability to advance to projects and roles that increasingly have more impact on strategy.  Link their ability to develop key skills to becoming a more valuable asset to the organization.  Ask them what part of the strategy motivates them the most.  Ask what roles, projects, and skills they think will help them get there.  Provide your input and agree to a plan.

You want your team to not only understand business strategy, and how it aligns with their work.  You want them to internalize it as part of what drives them to succeed.  You want to help them make it a part of how they develop skills and reach career goals.  This feeds into three of the biggest needs we all have… knowing what’s expected of me, knowing that my manager cares about me and knowing that what I’m working on matters.