Why Some Leaders Hate Long-Term Planning

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Why do some executives resist making long-term plans for their business? The hidden secret is a deep fear of failure but there’s a way to be confident about the top team’s quality of visionary thinking.

Vague aspirations to “Become World-Class” will always drive some portion of your employees crazy. Even if it happens on a grand scale, the answer isn’t to abandon inspirational goals

Fortunately, the Jamaican Government’s Vision 2030 avoids these perils by having both clear measurable targets and a specific end-date. Without these two components, it would be just be a bunch of wishful thoughts…fairy tales with no basis in reality.

However, most managers under-estimate the effort to produce such detailed targets. They struggle, but don’t understand why. One reason relates to a lack of harmony between two opposing camps: Dreamers and Realists. Your team is best served when a drive for inspiration (i.e. Dreaming) is balanced by a need to be practical (i.e. being Realistic). Here are three steps to include in your next planning meeting.

Being Inspirational through the Details

If you have noticed that most of your employees have lost the zest for Dreamer-led Rah-Rah / “Being Number One” chest-beating, you may ask: “Why did it become passe?” In short, it doesn’t do well in today‘s world where authenticity is the main currency.

They see such lofty goals as inauthentic because they lack specific, measurable characteristics. As a result, these targets lack credibility, reducing them to having no more significance than an idle knock in table tennis, or a meaningless game of solitaire played just to kill time.

Today, your employees expect real engagement which must be linked to clear performance feedback which is objectively measured. Such black and white targets tell them whether they have won or lost, not only individually, but on a corporate scale.

In the case of Vision 2030 there was, I imagine, a long hard distance to go from becoming “the place of choice to live, work, raise families and do business” to defining multiple, explicit targets for specific sectors. It’s exactly the tough task many executive teams are unwilling to do. Instead, they try to take lazy shortcuts. For example, it’s popular to get each department to come up with its own goals, then ask a clerk to pull them together in a final document.

At first blush, this approach may seem logical, or efficient. However, the end-product ends up being little more than a grab-bag of bits and pieces. This Frankenstein plan is exactly what Realists fear the most because the lack of practical coherence dooms it to failure.

Allowing Brutal Reality to Trim Dreams

Some Realists have such strong feelings that they block or boycott planning retreats altogether. Instead, they argue that today is the best guide to tomorrow and advocate no more than annual budgeting. Implicit in this approach is the assumption that competitive advantage was decided in the past, and won’t change.

This dangerous idea is usually not spoken out aloud…until it’s too late. Like Cable and Wireless of old, they deny the arrival of an impending Digicel, thereby facilitating their competition’s success.

Unfortunately, most executive teams never resolve the difficult tension between Dreamers and Realists, preferring to allow one side to “win”.

The way out of this zero-sum game is to balance the time devoted to each camp during your next strategic planning retreat. When you create your agenda, build this in: ask everyone to Dream, then stop. Pause, and then provoke participants to trim the vision by making it Real. In other words, allow each approach to run its full course before switching from one to the other. The fact is, both are important, but they are impossible to reconcile simultaneously in a workshop setting.

Time and Discipline to Balance Both Activities

Most executives don’t appreciate this delicate balance. Instead, if you belong to one group, you are likely to point fingers at the other, complaining that time spent in their preferred zone is wasted. As a result, I often find myself in the middle, arguing for a balance. This means pointing out the pitfalls of “short” retreats. I explain why we no longer offer them: they inevitably favor one camp over the other, producing a weak strategy which is neither rigorous nor durable.

In other words, trying to focus exclusively on Dreamers or Realists defeats the purpose. The point of such sessions is to make the most difficult decisions regarding the future of the company. Bringing both camps together is just one of the critical end-products.

Teams who realize this fact produce miracles: building inspiring long-term plans based on realistic short-term commitments. While it’s a hard result to generate in a mixed group, this balanced approach is the best way to craft sustainable competitive advantage.

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Should someone who is bad at email be promoted?

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 Is there such a thing as email prowess? And is it important enough to be one of the core criteria for promotion? Many would disagree, but there’s evidence which suggests that electronic messaging is no longer a diversion from your work, but an essential component.

It’s fair to say that most managers see email as a nuisance, an activity they would gladly do without. Professionals from an older generation can remember a simpler age when it didn’t exist. They recall the false promise made that it would save time, a goal it certainly has never achieved.

Now, it’s become an obligation – a burden which distracts and takes attention away from the real jobs managers are supposed to be doing. If it were to disappear or be banished, many would cheer with relief.

Of course, that’s wishful thinking. Asynchronous electronic messaging isn’t going anywhere, even if it gets a slight makeover via tools like WhatsApp. The benefits it brings are far too great and there’s not a single company which has avoided the culture change it’s wrought.

Amidst this transformation, managers don’t understand their role as a skillful user of email. Here are three research-based conclusions which illuminate the need to develop this skill long before a promotion is contemplated.

 Email Skill Does Matter

Researchers at Microsoft have been mining email usage data for several large companies for many years. Their expert analyses can predict how well a team performs. A key factor in measuring employee satisfaction is how quickly managers respond to messages sent by their direct reports.

This makes perfect sense. Managers who become the bottleneck to their team’s proper functioning can create havoc, bringing all work to a standstill.

Further research shows that the size of a manager’s email network also has an impact. Those with small networks tend to wield little influence, thereby putting the unit’s mission at risk.

Finally, managers who send email outside of working hours while insisting on immediate responses have an adverse effect on work-life balance. They merely have to forward a single short message to upset a subordinate’s weekend, vacation, holiday, sick-day…or labor pains. Ask around in your company and you may hear some real horror stories.

Collectively, these findings put to bed the notion that a manager’s email skills don’t matter. Unfortunately, many who are promoted fail to understand the centrality of these skills to their new role and never become proficient. As managers they lament: “Sorry…I’m really bad at email.”

Your Email Volume is Your Work Product

The quantity of managers who complain about their email volume is startling. To hear them tell it, they have nothing to do with the number of messages they are obliged to process each day. They are victims.

While this particular nonsense has no place in the managerial ranks, the company that fails to teach the right lessons to its staff fosters its continuance. In the cases where the executive are the worst complainers (and offenders) the entire firm suffers. All firms must therefore give staff the skills to manage ever-increasing volumes of email.

In a June 2012 Gleaner column entitled “How executives unwittingly turn employees into morons”, I shared a true story. A Vice President consistently and blindly ruined the productivity of those around him by insisting on replies to his messages within an hour. His ignorance and the ripple effect it produced could have been avoided with the right intervention customized for his level.

That training would have reshaped the common understanding. Email messaging is a multi-faceted activity that requires a number of simultaneous skills: operational effectiveness, writing, call-to-action crafting, reading between lines, tone management, plus others. They don’t come without effort and practice, yet most companies are blind to studies showing that the average manager spends 20% of his day on this task. The cumulative time spent producing and processing poor quality messages is immense.

The Human Resource Department’s Role

Traditionally, HR has been one of the least productive units in this area. When email was first rolled out, the department was often the last to adopt the new technology. Playing catchup ever since, many Human Resource professionals live in a perpetual email backlog, use poor techniques and never move beyond the basics. As a result, they aren’t role models.

Instead, most staff members are left to fend for themselves. This means that promotions occur without these skills being taken into account. If the 20% statistic is true, and email has the multiplier effect we just described, then the problem in your company is probably expanding as volumes increase.

In most firms, this logjam can only be broken by top leadership, which must start by taking responsibility for its own lack of skill. After a good intervention, the frequent complaints about email should be replaced by positive, collective action and include everyone who sends electronic messages.