Four Dimensional Goal Alignment: Quadrupling the Drive to Success

Despite their finite nature, the demands on a business leader’s time and energy can sometimes seem infinite: customer satisfaction must be delivered; stakeholder expectations addressed; suitably structured teams need to be assembled, directed and motivated; quality, skilled staff have to be recruited and retained. Without a reduction in these pressures, an enterprise’s success can be limited by the scale of its leaders’ contributions. But if corporate, customer, team and individual goals are all aligned, then multiple energies flow in the same direction – that of organisational success – with magnified force, while lessening dependence on leadership. With so much to commend it, how can such a beneficial situation be brought about?

Achievable corporate goals

Firstly, achievable corporate goals need to be set. Achievability is best ensured by retaining responsibility for reaching goals with those who design them – usually the executive team.

Glossy ‘mission statements’ and ‘visions’, cloaked in vagaries – such as “Over the next 10 years our aim is to promote what is already good, while growing in strength and confidence” or “We aim to double our market share within 3 years” – are a long way from being clear corporate goals. An organisation’s objectives need to be quantifiable, so that success can be measured. Goals must be underpinned by a realisable strategy, including defined methods and pathways for attaining desired outcomes.

A willingness on the part of leadership to be accountable for realising corporate ambitions indicates that such ambitions are viable. In a healthy environment, where goals are about setting direction, not about describing hopes and dreams, those at the top offer supportive transformational leadership. Leaders encourage and enthuse the workforce, explaining goals: why they have been set and how they can be accomplished. Conversely, when objectives are passed down, largely unaltered, through detached transactional leadership, their feasibility should perhaps be called into question. Expecting others to interpret and plan to meet company aims, through the imposition of a rewards-penalties mechanism, gives strong hints that reaching targets could be problematic – indeed, supermen and miracles may be the only solutions.

Leaders have succeeded in establishing achievable corporate goals when they are confident that: in the private sector – the appropriate marketplace already exists, or can be realistically created, and competition can be held at bay; in the public sector – organisational purpose, challenges and responsibilities have been clarified and communicated, both internally and externally to the community served. In addition the workforce must be able and willing to deliver, required investment available and timescales practicable, if testing.

Recognisable customer goals

Whether aiming to address perceived problems or to provide new enriching benefits, a business’s offerings will only be attractive and acceptable to prospective recipients if they assist in meeting recognised customer goals.

There are two distinct tactics used in selling, corresponding closely to the key factors applied when designing and marketing public services: promising to remove a pain which is being experienced, or is likely to be encountered in the future; providing immediately perceived benefits. Either way, to make a successful sale or to deliver a satisfactory service, the prospective customer must acknowledge the pain or benefits. Additionally, the client must be convinced that a situation is untenable and needs rectification, or that benefits can no longer be lived without. Key to both selling and to gaining appreciation for public services is helping clients understand, and plan for, their forward agenda over the coming years, and what demands this will place on them.

Only when customer goals are fully appreciated by the customers themselves, and there is belief that a provider can deliver what is required, are the goals of clients and their supplier organisations aligned.

Harvesting team power

Teams are very powerful units within organisations, capable of out-manoeuvring leadership by sheer weight of numbers, especially where there exists a determination to reach team-defined aspirations, irrespective of corporate strategy. As team goals encapsulate an organisation’s culture and motivate its workforce, they should be embodied in all corporate planning. Team power has to be harvested, not wasted.

In the past, groups of workers were largely represented by Trade Unions, particularly in areas such as pay and working conditions. In recent years, the less official, less formally structured team – joined together by time and culture – has gained strength. It is not unusual to find groups of employees who have worked together for many years, offering security and generating strong loyalties. By contrast, corporate leaders can change all too frequently.

Teams are strongest when they consist of ‘like-minded’ people, glued together by a common culture that contains many elements: degree of work ethic; levels of personal and professional integrity; acceptance of, or resistance to, mobility, flexibility and change at work; political views. While some aspects of a team ethos show outwardly – like work-life balance and the degree to which members socialise together – deep rooted, shared beliefs, such as equality and diversity expectations, require more observation to uncover, yet can be fundamental to how a group behaves.

Team goals embody collective team culture, averaging out the aims of the membership. For example, ambitions for a set of higher management figures may focus on maximising salaries, bonuses and status, with resultant reduced integrity and longer working hours; operational personnel working in the public sector are much more likely to target job security and fairness for all, coupled with 9-to-5 work ethics.

Whatever the nature of united objectives, teams strive hard, individually and together, to achieve them. Shared objectives are highly motivational – completing a project, providing a good service or winning a hard-fought order – particularly to natural team players. A powerful energy drives a group’s desire to reach its goals, at times irrespective of what is happening in the surrounding organisation. This is far from surprising, as team goals address the lower, and therefore most compelling, three layers of Maslow’s five-tier ‘Hierarchy of Needs’: Physiological Needs – acquiring food, shelter, clothing and other basics to survive; Safety Needs – operating in a safe and non-threatening work environment, with job security; Social Needs – establishing contact and friendship with fellow-workers, social activities and opportunities.

Teams are the boiler room of any company, delivering output and profit. Onboard they are a major benefit, functioning collaboratively and supportively, plugging gaps and working for the good of the whole, but they can make or break change, as evidenced by the failure of all too many new strategies. Frequently teams approach change and new leadership with suspicion, forming effective resistance through weight of numbers. A compelling desire often exists to maintain a current direction, where this is believed to aid the accomplishment of goals.

If a group is convinced that it can meet its own aims through servicing corporate ambitions, then it will apply the full force of its combined energy to realising these aligned aims, ensuring company success. But if a team’s power is driving in a different direction, then energies are lost and fulfilment of any intended achievements becomes a struggle. To force targeting of corporate goals that aren’t in-sync with team-goals quickly de-motivates, significantly reducing the prospect of attaining the required outcomes.

Addressing individual needs and aspirations

Organisations are comprised of individuals, whose aims are satisfied to varying degrees by team goals. Beyond shared goals lie personal needs and aspirations, which can be highly influential. So, if a person believes that their specific desires may not be achievable by following the united path, they are likely to take action and adopt behaviours which benefit themselves, whatever the impact on teams or the wider enterprise. ‘Rogue’ individuals can cause surprisingly disproportionate damage, internally and externally, particularly when they occupy roles in the higher ranks of a business.

Individual goals may align very well with team goals. Personal ambitions will then fall away, subsumed by collective objectives. In other situations, individual goals remain the chief drivers, for a variety of reasons, such as a lack of natural team-player disposition or a simple non-alignment with group goals over the longer-term. Employees may operate comfortably within a team for a period, when to do so offers enhanced opportunity for meeting private ends, but a reversion to more characteristic behaviour is likely with time.

Individual needs lie at one end of the scale, such as a desire for job security or a work-life balance which allows out-of-work interests to dominate. Individual aspirations sit at the other end, most commonly represented by desires for improved life-style, status, respect and appreciation. Maslow’s ‘Hierarchy of Needs’ addresses aspirations in its highest two layers: Ego – achieving recognition, acknowledgment and rewards; Self-Actualization – realizing dreams and potential, reaching the heights of one’s gifts and talents. High aspirers are the most difficult staff members to retain, yet with so much to offer an organisation, their continued loyalty is hugely valuable.

Identifying employees who aren’t carried along with teams is important, so that pursuit of their own goals doesn’t lead them to work against the tide of corporate aims. Customers can be misled – or teams exploited – for personal gain, channelling others’ energy to assist in the achievement of an individual’s ambitions. Where such potentially harmful behaviours are recognised in time, efforts can be made to re-align solo endeavours to the common purpose, strengthening teams and sending consistent, appropriate messages to clients.

When goals misalign

Misalignment of goals – corporate, customer, team and individual – occurs only too often, particularly in situations such as mergers and acquisitions, with quite disastrous results, as this real-life example so clearly demonstrates.

Company A bought company B, for the purpose of adding a further specialism to its multiple service offerings, gaining the capability to compete for bigger deals. Furthermore, there were plans to benefit from the wider client base of the combined organisations, by selling company A’s services to company B’s customers. However, company A’s clients were very large businesses, seeking a service provider to take control of the majority of their operations. By contrast, company B’s clients were smaller and didn’t want to hand over too much power; they were seeking a smaller provider, to assist in specific, limited areas. The corporate goals of company A simply did not align with the goals of company B’s clients.

Structurally, company A comprised a small number of management figures, directing large numbers of low skilled workers, while company B employed more skilled, professional workers, who were used to managing themselves in teams, working for single clients. Used to having control over their destinies, these teams had a strong desire to remain self-governing. Clearly, company A could not address the desires of company B’s teams.

Disregarding clear preferences to maintain existing team structures, company A followed an agenda of pulling company B’s resources into one central pool, to provide a capability to formulate any combination of individuals to service any client. This approach met the needs of company A’s agenda: to rapidly assemble multi-disciplined, mobile teams to address the demands of new big wins. However, breaking up stable teams and replacing these with transient structures, cut across an established culture of security and long-term integration with clients. The effect was weakened group bonds, causing individual goals to gain profile, dominating over team goals. Personal ambitions surfaced, resulting in many competent employees leaving the combined company A/B, taking their clients with them.

Not unsurprisingly, the acquisition failed. At no level were any goals aligned. All the money paid by company A for company B was wasted.

Iterative cycle of goal setting

An organisation needs to devise its corporate goals by working both top-down (aligning with customer goals) and bottom-up (considering individual and team perspectives), iteratively refining ambitions until there is a realistic prospect of alignment across all parties.

A top-down approach develops a preferred strategy, which requires the commitment of a suitable volume of clients. Analysis of the market-place – gaining customer insight -establishes who these clients might be and whether the planned strategy will take identified customers to the outcomes they seek. If indications are positive, then all is well; the strategy has passed its first test. However, should initial scrutiny raise questions over the ability of a company to deliver what customers believe they want, then the next action is to ascertain whether clients can be persuaded to rethink their requirements, to match the strategically planned offerings. Where such persuasion isn’t possible, corporate goals must be adjusted to come closer to customer goals.

A bottom-up method of checking the realism of corporate goals, takes note of organisational structure and culture: the relative influence of group and personal objectives, and the nature of these. An honest appraisal of what drives the workforce enables assessment of the ability of the existing employees to deliver against company aims. Where skills or culture are likely to limit success, the clear question to be addressed is whether these barriers can be overcome, within a reasonable time-frame. While the approach to accomplishing change in team-centric establishments is quite different to that applicable to individual-centric organisations, the pace of transformation attainable is much the same, and frequently too slow for meeting demanding corporate ambitions. An alternative is to undertake a program of redundancies and recruitments, to refresh the workforce with more appropriate resources, but, even with the most aggressive revitalising scheme, it is doubtful that a personnel change-over beyond 25% per annum is achievable.

Where the gap between planned corporate goals and existing team and individual goals is identified to be too wide for gaining timely alignment, a modification of the corporate strategy is the best option, to lessen the gap. Persevering with corporate goals, when there is no recognised means of reaching them, is foolhardy. A corporate vision must be underpinned with a realisable strategy and change plan, if a successful outcome is to result.

Rather than consisting of a one-off exercise, corporate goal setting should involve an iterative cycle of adjustments, fed by top-down and bottom-up analysis. Compromises will undoubtedly have to be made. Corporate goals should only be fixed once a full analysis of the marketplace has revealed sufficient clients, whose own goals and expectations are met by what is being offered. Likewise, goal fixing should only occur once there is conviction that the aims and aspirations of teams and individuals are adequately in-tune with corporate goals. This may necessitate undertaking an employee refresh program and applying the positive influence of transformational leadership, to ensure co-operation and generation of a drive to deliver what is required.

Compromise equals strength

Compromise in corporate goal setting doesn’t weaken – it strengthens. The magnified energy of goal alignment drives so effectively that the probability of reaching goals increases, with targets met sooner and with greater ease. Settling on objectives that benefit the organisation, customers, teams and individuals avoids wasting energy on overcoming resistance. All efforts are retained for pushing through what achieves a result for all involved. And new, more challenging aims can then be set and driven through, time and again, as long as goal alignment continues.

© 2011 – 2014, Sandy Arpino. All rights reserved.