Each year, thousands of public and private organizations develop so-called strategic plans. But instead of being strategic and adding measurable value to internal and external clients, these efforts shift to the planning of tactics—and assume that existing organizational goals are useful or even correct. In fact, it seems that more often than not, leaders are disappointed with what their organizations deliver to clients. This disappointment comes from not asking and answering the right questions. Indeed, organizations are missing the vital leadership they require—people who will ask these right questions.
True strategic leaders question their organizations’ goals and objectives against value-added criteria and, if required, modify plans and criteria accordingly. Not asking the right questions puts their organizations at risk of doing the same thing year after year. Worse, they potentially fail to be responsive to new and evolving social, economic, and cultural realities. Instead of leading valuable change and contributions, leaders who are unwilling to question the status quo simply become the custodians of doing the same thing—albeit, sometimes more efficiently.
Instead, effective leadership aligns what an organization uses, does, produces, and delivers with what clients want and is also useful in the marketplace as well as to our share world and society. What’s more, strategic leaders realize the value of employee contributions, both individually and organizationally, and they obtain shared commitment of all stakeholders.
Finding Purpose: Leadership Pinpoints Useful Direction for the Organization
Whether formalized or not, individuals and organizations have—and require—purpose. It is imperative that strategic leaders not only help define a valuable shared purpose, but also ensure that the defined purpose is accepted and applied by all shareholders and stakeholders. Statements of purpose must be both valid and tied to measurable results-referenced criteria.
Legendary thinkers Peter F. Drucker and Frances Hesselbein champion the idea that underlying purpose of all organizations is to make our world a better place for all, using our organizations as the vehicle. “A successful leader enrolls all stakeholders in defining and delivering results useful for all,” they assert in Five Most Important Questions: Enduring Wisdom of Today’s Leaders.
What are those five questions every organization should ask—and answer—to be responsive and responsible?
- What is our mission?
- Who is our customer?
- What does the customer value?
- What are our results?
- What is our plan?
These simple questions all point to, but do not explicitly specify, adding value to all people within and external to the organization. To make societal value-add explicit, I suggest one more purpose-driven question:
6. What measurable value will we add to all stakeholders, both internal and external? (Or why is our mission our mission?)
The addition of this sixth question is important because all organizations are means to societal ends. I urge that the commitment to add measurable value to all partners become formal, rigorous, and explicit. I have no doubt that these six questions, when answered, will enable leaders and associates to define how they can individually and collectively contribute to success—success that is both internal and external to the organization. This is how strategic leaders should operate and how strategic planning should progress.
But why is it important for talent development leaders to understand the organization’s purpose? As stated earlier, purpose drives everything an organization uses, does, produces, and delivers. Consequently, the organization’s purpose should also define and drive the solutions and support delivered by the talent development function.
Considering the “Societal Value-Add” Is Essential to Strategy
Leaders who have a primary focus on how the organization adds value to society are the definition of strategic leadership. By making a societal value-added purpose formal and explicit, it provides the criteria for serious strategic and tactical planning. This includes the alignment of planning, design, development, management, implementation, talent development, evaluation, and continual improvement. It also provides the basis for costs-consequences assessments.
An external focus enables leaders to assess the viability of the organization to contribute to society. Leaders can start down the right path by asking: “If my organization is the solution, what’s the problem?” This focus on adding the purpose of societal value is basic to strategic leadership. This base allows leaders to then ask: “If this talent development is the solution, what’s the problem?”
Further, failure to focus on societal value-added can be catastrophic for organizational success. The organizational landscape is cluttered with failed and ineffective organizations. Although many of these failed organizations did some sort of formal planning, even calling it “strategic planning,” they often forget to factor societal concerns and external clients in the planning equation. Leaving out this societal value turns strategic planning into simple operational concerns.
Strategic Leadership Requires Rigorous Criteria for Planning and Success
Measurable criteria are vital to defining and delivering organizational success. Not having measurable criteria is an invitation to failure. What could be more practical than publicly agreeing on where the organization is headed, why it wants to get there, and how organizational leaders know when they have arrived?
To help pinpoint criteria, I suggest a framework termed an Ideal Vision. This is a statement of measurable ultimate purposes, and is most useful when formally applied. As the term implies, the Ideal Vision outlines a perfect world toward which leaders and employees can continually steer while uniquely contributing to the shared organizational journey. In its briefest form, it identifies in measurable results terms, the world we wish, together, to create for tomorrow’s child. The ideal vision defines mega.
Because the Ideal Vision is also linked to measurable criteria, leaders can place the organization’s purposes in its GPS. It’s important to note, though, that no single organization—or leader or employee--is responsible for achieving all of the Ideal Vision on their own. But if they don’t state the ideal, they cannot steer toward it.
Here’s how it plays out in the strategic planning process:
External Client and Societal Value Delivered (Mega)
What Organizations Deliver (Macro)
What Individuals Deliver (Micro)
What Talent Development Does (Process)
Human, Financial, and Physical Resources (Inputs)
Mega, and the measurable criteria, provide the essential definition for strategic leadership to define and help deliver useful results, both within and outside the organization. It provides the guidance for the consequences, involvement, commitment, and contributions of all associates. More importantly, it will help define and justify what skills, knowledge, attitudes, and abilities talent must acquire and apply.
Bottom line: By applying these six questions, those responsible for organizational success can make sensible and practical decisions about aligning an entire organization to an over-arching focus and purpose, adding measurable value external to the organization. And with a formal purpose and commitment to adding value to all stakeholders—internal and external, these six questions can help target the organization’s commitment to ensure not only a measurably successful organization, but also an improved and shared vision of society.
Drucker, P.F., Hesselbein, F. et. al. (2015) Five Most Important Questions: Enduring Wisdom of Today’s Leaders. Wiley, Hoboken, NJ.
Kaufman, R, & Guerra-Lopez, I. (2008) The Assessment Book: Applied Strategic Thinking and Performance Improvement Through Self-Assessments. Amherst, MA. HRD Press Inc.
Kaufman, R. (2011) A Manager’s Pocket Guide to Strategic Thinking and Planning. Amherst, MA. HRD Press, Inc.
- Kaufman, R. & Guerra-Lopez (2013) Needs Assessment for Organizational Success. Arlington, VA., ATD.