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Leaders: How Your Audacious Goal Can Actually Hurt People

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The “grand plan” is typically developed by trying to maximize the value created for shareholders. Among a number of options to consider; the one that, for example, produces — on paper — the greatest net present value (NPV) typically gets the nod. Revenues less expenses discounted by the cost of money generally controls the decision making outcome.

There are other factors, however, that should be given serious consideration in the chosen direction. A paper result is simply that; it depends completely on the assumptions being met.

If projected customer sales are achieved and if cost of sales targets are hit and if period expenses are controlled, the expected results are plan achieved.

A lot of if’s

The if’s are, of course, controlled by how employees behave as they try to execute the plan. If they behave exactly as defined in the plan, the expected results are delivered. And you can pay yourself on the back for having a brilliant goal.

But how often does that happen? How often do people do what you expect them to?

I’ve never seen it in over 33 years as an executive leader.

People NEVER behave the way you expect; if their needs, wants and desires are not incorporated into the grand plan, the plan is doomed to failure.

The paper planning exercise may be a meaningful beginning but it only describes a theoretical possibility and nothing more.

The question every single person asks is “How does the grand plan affect me?” They rarely have difficulty understanding the need for the plan — decreasing market share requires pricing action; eroding margins required cost reductions; additional revenue requires entering new markets — but at the end of the day it all comes down to how they will be personally affected by it.

What does it mean to their job — will they still have one? Will they have to change location and move to another city? What specific impact will it have on their daily work conditions — will they have new hours or will they have a new work station?

A working draft

Given the very real concern employees have over change, it is absolutely critical for a leader to socialize their plan with the people who are expected to act on it and deliver. And position the plan as a working draft to people to show that you are open to wanting to share its intent and more importantly obtain their input on will it will work and if not, what has to change so that it will.

Surprisingly, you might discover that your plan is perceived to hurt the very people you need to support and implement it. It is an unattended consequence, of course, — no leader willingly introduces change to intentionally hurt their employees — but it is a tipping point that must be dealt with.

If people feel they are being put at risk they will shut down and do whatever they can to NOT execute it.

And it will fail notwithstanding its intent.

So, after various internal stakeholder teams have declared what must change, the plan must be revised PERIOD!

As a leader you really only have two choices: one, to NOT accept the input received and stay with the original plan — and not only fall short of the plan’s purpose but also turn off employees who believed that since you asked for their comments you would actually listen to them. Or two, modify the plan as a compromise given the input provided — and achieve the results of your imperfect version of the plan.

I know that many leaders would say that their job is to define expected outcomes and then “hand it down” to the organization to do it. It’s great in theory, but if people who have to pour their heart and soul into delivery don’t believe in it because they spot barriers to its success, why try and force it?

Related: How to Be Relevant to People Around You

A worthless plan

Quite frankly I could care less about a plan that can’t be executed regardless how brilliant the planners think it is; it has zero value to any stakeholder.

I have seen plans to consolidate multiple call centers — back in the day when we believed them to be vital to our growth agenda and refused to outsource them to remote parts of the world where labour costs were lower — fail miserably because employees’ concerns were not addressed to their satisfaction.

In this case many people had to change work locations while others lost their role and had to be trained for other positions.
Little surprise that the consolidation plan was not fully supported; implementation fell short of expectations and customer satisfaction fell.

Of course there are times when, despite the fact that a plan is modified to minimize the adverse impacts it has on people, some individuals still get hurt. And for “the greater good” the plan proceeds without unanimous support — it’s virtually impossible to get 100% buy-in on anything.

Honesty and support

In such instances the leader should:
—  make as much information available on the plan as possible: what the change is and why the action is being taken.
— provide lifeline support for those individuals negatively impacted.
— prioritize training efforts for any people displaced by the plan.
— provide personal services to anyone deciding to exit the company.

Standout leaders aren’t completely infatuated with a plan to enhance the value of their organization; they are equally concerned with how the plan affects people.

Their challenge is to balance the needs of all stakeholders to optimize the benefits for all.

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