From the time an employee shows up for their first interview to the minute they walk out the door on their last day, it’s important for everyone to be aligned with company goals and objectives. Normally, these would be communicated by managers and set by company culture. But what happens when senior leaders don’t know what an organisation’s main focus areas are?
A new survey from the London Business School found that only a scant third of senior managers could identify their company’s top three priorities. Researchers surveyed 11,000 senior executives, leaders and managers from more than 400 companies to find out what trickles down through the ranks when it comes to business objectives. This is a surprisingly low number, especially as it stands in stark contrast to rhetoric around employee purpose.
Much has been said about how important it is for employees to know and understand their role and contributions to a company. It’s no help, though, if managers can’t tell them what they are working towards. This doesn’t apply to just current workers, either. Everything from hiring practices to customer relations is affected by the big questions: What does your company want to do, and how is it going to do it?
“We asked people to list their company’s top three to five priorities … Even with five tries, on average only around 50 per cent could list the same one priority and only a third can list their firm’s top three priorities,” says Rebecca Homkes, a teaching fellow at London Business School, who led the survey. “For firms to execute a strategy well, that strategy must be clearly communicated and understood throughout the organisation.”
So where is the breakdown? Lack of coordination and collaboration were the main culprits, according to responders. While 40 per cent said information is shared widely around the office, only 13 per cent worked in companies where office plans facilitated information exchange. Additionally, less than 10 per cent of people felt they could rely on co-workers in other departments to deliver on promises; only 20 per cent of senior managers thought that colleagues would let them know in a timely manner if they couldn’t deliver on a promise; and less than half felt that conflicts across the company were resolved in a timely manner. All together, this is lethal for aligning employees and management around shared purpose.
The cost of senior managers failing to trust other teams in other departments leads to mistrust and over-commitment, in some instances. “Senior managers who cannot rely on others tend to do the job themselves or let their own commitments to others slip, which only compounds the problem,” Homkes says. “It’s little wonder that over-worked executives lose sight of the company’s priorities.”
This ingrained, persistent issue results in an inordinate amount of redundancies, inefficiencies and passive commitments. This isn’t a problem that plagues just large organisations, either. More than 80 per cent of small businesses surveyed by Staples revealed they did not track company goals.
What can leaders do to make sure business goals are clear and communicated to the company? Or, back to basics, what can they do to set priorities in the first place?
To start, it involves a fair amount of introspection – what makes a business tick? And what does its future look like? Here are some steps leaders can take to determine what you should be focusing on, and how you can effectively communicate those priorities to staff:
Distinguish between your long-term and short-term goals
Ideally, long-term goals have a lifeline of three to five years and should articulate the company’s mission statement. By bringing attention back to something so basic as the purpose behind an organisation, employees and managers can gain a better sense of why they do what they do.
After defining long-term goals, figure out what short-term goals will get you there. These should be specific, measurable, action-oriented, realistic and time-specific. It’s hard to see the light at the end of a three- to five-year-long tunnel, but if you break the goal down into bite-size chunks, it’s easier for team members and leaders to see how their everyday-actions add up to real progress.
Think in terms of measurable and challenging
More often than not, people default to profit as the primary objective of any business. While this might be part of the equation, there are more meaningful and satisfying ways of measuring success than how much money a company makes. Measurable goals give workers common purpose and a sense of progress, while challenging goals keep everyone interested and add a dose of motivation to push themselves and reach their full potential.
Determine the best way to communicate priorities to the company
If the word ‘goal’ evokes more groans than grins, try reframing the discussion around company initiatives that have an effect on employee and business growth and success. Similarly, periodically ask employees or managers where they would place emphasis. By bringing in those who are interacting with the fundamentals of a business on a daily basis, leaders gain a new perspective on what priorities are at play and what employees can actually accomplish given current resources.
As with most initiatives, change starts at the top. Unless senior management wants to become just another statistic in a future survey about business priorities, they need to know company objectives inside and out first before they can expect employees to know them. Inform team leaders or department heads about the change so everyone in the company is on the same page. This knowledge can then trickle down to employees across the company.