Monday, February 4, 2008

Strategic Planning Analogy #152: Stuffed Shirt

One time, I was the keynote speaker at a luncheon. The audience consisted mostly of small, independent grocers. I walked up to the podium, and just as I was about to say my first words, one of the independent grocers stood up and shouted me down.

He said, “Before you start to speak, first convince me that you are worth listening to and that I wouldn’t be wasting my time by staying.”

Well, needless to say, nothing like that had ever happened to me before (or ever happened again). I replied by saying that my first job out of college was working at a small, independent family-run retail business. Now, even though it was not the grocery business, the experience allowed me to experience first-hand the problems faced by small, independent retailers.

I guess what I said was good enough to convince that man, because he sat down and allowed me to give my speech.

There are lots of symbols that should have helped create credibility for my speech at that luncheon. I was an executive with a title from the largest and most successful food wholesaler in the country (the company who they had chosen to supply them with groceries). I was also designated as the keynote speaker, a position usually reserved for the best presentation.

Yet, in spite of these external credentials, that man in the audience was not convinced. He had never met me before and was suspicious of “stuffed shirts” from corporate headquarters. To him, we were guilty of being worthless windbags until proven otherwise. I had to convince him that I had more than just superficial credibility. He needed to know I had “street cred,” the credibility that comes from having been out there on the front lines with an independent retailer.

A similar problem can plague a strategic planning process. If the person leading the process does not have the respect of the people out in the field who have to implement it, the results will not get the respect necessary to carry them out. The strategy will die at the point of implementation.

The principle here is that strategic planning is severely hampered when those leading it lack credibility with the people in the field. At some point, it does not matter that you know you are right in your strategic plan. If those implementing the plan are not equally as convinced that the strategy is right, there is a good chance they will not pursue the strategy fully enough to succeed. As we saw in the last blog (“Pursue, Pursue”), strong pursuit is as important as having the right plan. Your credibility can have a direct impact on how committed the troops are to pursuit.

Equally problematic, if the field organization does not respect the people in the strategy development process, they will not fully cooperate in ensuring that you have a proper strategy in the first place. Good strategies are based on good insight. The people in the field are your eyes and ears as to what is going on. Their insight is needed to ensure that the right choices are made. If they do not respect you, they will be less cooperative and less concerned about being fully forthright in sharing their perspective.

Result? Without respect, you will be seen as a stuffed shirt—not worthy of serious time and effort. They will humor you while the strategy is being developed and give lip service at the time of implementation, but ultimately ignore you.

It’s sort of like how the career civil servants treat the politicians inside the beltway in Washington DC. They see the politicians as a bunch of stuffed shirts that come and go. It really doesn’t matter who they are or what political party they belong to. The career civil servants know that they will outlast them, so they humor the politicians and then do as they please.

I believe that one reason strategic planning is a bit out of favor at the moment is because too many stuffed shirts have ruined the respect for the process.

Without respect, it still may be possible to coerce people into greater cooperation through fear (threats of being fired) or bribery (incentives linked to strategy implementation). However, as we saw in an earlier blog (see “Soulless Capitalism”), unless people are emotionally committed to a strategy, it will be difficult to get cooperation when the going gets tough (and at some point, it always does). Then, instead of plowing through the rough patch, they will blame the stuffed shirt strategist for giving them a bad strategy (and then abandon it).

Therefore, not only is it important for the strategy to have credibility, it is important for the strategist (and strategy leaders) to have credibility. Just as I had to persuade that man at the luncheon that I had enough credibility to be worth listening to, you have to persuade your people that you have enough credibility to be worth listening to regarding strategy.

How do you create this credibility?

1) To Create Street Cred, Spend Time on the Street
As mentioned in a prior blog (see “Do You Do Breakpack”), we talked about the benefits which come from spending time with the people out in the field. One of the best ways to break down credibility barriers is to show that you do not spend all of your time hidden away in an ivory tower. Firsthand experience on the front lines can go a long way.

The Nordstrom company has had a longstanding policy that all the executives must spend at least some time each year working a store sales floor, all the way up to the CEO. When I was at Best Buy, we had all the executives spend time at the call center listening in to customer complaints so they could hear firsthand what customers were saying. Then they all had to go to a store in a remote location to get a feel for how it all played out on the sales floor.

2) Park Your Ego At the Door
Yes, you want to gain the respect of the people in the field as being qualified. But that does not give you the right to beat them over the head with it. If your ego gets too large, it can appear as if you give no credibility to the people in the field. If you treat them like dirt, they will put up barriers to working with you.

This is a two-way street. If you want their respect, then you have to give them some respect.

3) Bring Something to the Table
Equally important, if you want respect and credibility, add something of value to the process. If all you do is coordinate meetings or call in consultants, then you truly are nothing more than a stuffed shirt. Prove your worth by making worthwhile contributions.

Strategies are most effective when the troops are emotionally committed to making it a reality. This is far more likely to occur if you have developed credibility with them as someone worth paying attention to.

One of the potential problems to outsourcing your strategic planning process to a big consulting firm is that they may not have credibility with the troops. Yes, they benefit from their global reputation. And given how much they cost, they must be adding value somewhere, right? But they still could be perceived as outsiders who are clueless about the nuances of your company if the engagement is not managed properly. In that case, they are merely stuffed shirts wearing slightly nicer shirts.

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