“Are you a GPS...

business-direction-compass How are you fully leveraging your operational leaders?

...or a Compass?”

One of the common topics that routinely comes up in our executive coaching discussions with senior leaders, is understanding the distinction between strategic leadership and operational leadership. It is an important distinction that we’ve outlined in all our “Missing Piece” books. Recently, I watched an interview with Ken Frazier, former CEO of Merck & Co. who touched on this topic. During the interview he used the title phrase as his way of making the distinction, especially for leaders in the C-Suite.

We define strategic leadership as the level of leadership that sets the direction for the organization. This includes creating and socializing the vision, mission and values of the organization. It also includes creating and executing the strategy for the business and how the business competes in its markets and industries. It is typically the realm of the leaders at the top of the organization. The CEO, Executive Director, Business Owner are the lead strategic thinkers in their businesses who rely heavily on their lead teams to collectively create the direction towards achieving the strategy and becoming the vision!

Operational leadership, on the other hand, are the leaders who ensure the organization has the capacity and capability to execute the strategy. This includes ensuring the business has the right people, processes and tools (read technology) in place to create sustainable desired results. This is typically the realm of the leaders who report directly to the senior leadership team (strategic leaders) as they have a view of the strategy as well as a view of where the business meets the clients/customers/donors. This dual view provides the alignment between the strategy and tactical goals and actions required for sustainable tactical execution!

With that in mind, let’s explore the idea of senior leaders acting as a GPS or as a Compass and the impact both have on the business:

  • Senior Leadership as a GPS ~ By now, we are all too familiar with the value of a GPS app that gives step-by-step and turn-by-turn directions to our destination. It can be tempting for senior leaders to establish the Why (vision and values), the What (mission and strategy) AND the How (operational leadership) to ensure the outcomes are achieved. However, when senior leadership takes on the operational leadership mantle, they create two serious negative consequences. The first is that it relegates operational leadership down further to focus on tactical operations and the day-to-day tactics and actions. This directly hampers the development of the leadership team as a whole because the senior leaders are now doing the operational workload. Secondly, senior leaders are now neglecting their strategic leadership responsibilities to the detriment of the overall business. In a dynamic business environment, being distracted from strategic leadership negatively impacts the entire business!
  • Senior Leadership as a Compass ~ With the proliferation of GPS apps, we rarely see a compass used any longer. I would venture to say that there are some who don’t know what the N, E, S, or W located somewhere on the vehicle dashboard actually means. Strategic leadership is all about using the compass to establish and socialize the Why (vision and values) and the What (mission and strategy). Effectively communicating the desired direction to the rest of the organization allows both operational leadership and tactical leaders to do the work of executing the strategy through their plans and goals to achieve the desired outcomes. As Ken Frazier said later in the interview, senior executives have the least effective view of what we call “ground truth” so why would they have an over-active role in the How? Trust the operational leaders to do their work without having to get permission every time an important operational decision needs to be made. I learned this lesson early on as an Area Vice President for Sprint Business with a senior team of six directors and forty-three managers covering a nineteen-state territory of nearly $1B in revenue. It would’ve been impossible to achieve the strategy if I tried to lead like a GPS!

In a VUCA (Volatile, Uncertain, Complex, Ambiguous) business environment senior leaders have a heady responsibility to create the right direction as well as continuously adjust the direction to account for the fluid nature of business change. They can ill-afford to take their eyes off the compass and must trust their operational leaders to fully leverage their GPSs to achieve sustainable desired results!

How are you fully leveraging your operational leaders? If you are not sure, we can help!

Lead Well!

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Sunday, 21 July 2024