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Leadership Activities to Chart Your Company’s Strategic Direction

Kristen Craft | April 26, 2019

As a leader, one of the highest impact things you can do for your business is to define its direction. Without a roadmap for success, you won’t know what your objectives are, how you plan to accomplish them, or which resources are required. Without a strategic direction for your company, you’ll be flying blind. Worse, the other people on your team will be making decisions that may or may not push the company forward.

This process of explicitly defining your course helps everyone do better work. Though embarking on such a massive project can feel daunting and overwhelming, it doesn’t have to be. There are three practical steps and simple leadership activities you can perform with your team to help determine your company direction efficiently and effectively.

Leadership Activity: Define Your Core Values and Operating Principles

The first thing you need to do is define your team’s operating system. A “team operating system” includes two components: your core values and your operating principles. While operating principles guide how you make decisions, core values define why you make decisions in that particular way.

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The operating system is a valuable framework for your entire company, acting as a foundation for the work you do, how you do it, and the culture you build. The good news is that – whether you realize it or not – you already have an internal operating system. Your team already has norms around the way they work, behave, and make decisions. From here, it’s simply a matter of articulating them and writing them down somewhere easily accessible.

Step 1: Defining Core Values

Your core values represent the characteristics you expect your employees to demonstrate. They’re personality traits that you want to encourage in every part of your company: from how you interact with customers to how you approach teamwork to how you think about yourself. To help you pinpoint the core values you prioritize, think of the traits you’d look for when hiring a new employee.

The thing to remember is that core values can’t be taught. They’re typically innate personal characteristics that can’t be changed and are highly subjective. Examples of core values include:

  • Humility
  • Inclusivity
  • Dedication
  • Positivity
  • Empathy

Documenting your core values helps the team in multiple ways. First, it makes the hiring process easier, since everyone knows what to look for in a candidate. Second, it’s a rubric for existing team members about how to behave. Third, it reminds everyone of how to navigate times of stress or strife.

Put It into Practice

To map out and define your company’s core values, try this simple leadership activity with your peers or managers:

  • Begin by asking everyone to come up with as many ideas for core values as possible—no explanation needed. Just brainstorm as many ideas (at least 20-25) as you can.
  • Then, as a team, rank each core value based on how important it is to you as a company. Then, sort that list from most to least important.
  • Once you have your top five values, define exactly what those core values are, how they’ll be represented in your company, and how they’ll impact your bottom line.

Don’t forget to communicate your core values and their definitions with your entire company. Make them easily accessible in a knowledge management system like Tettra.

Step 2: Defining Operating Principles

Your operating principles serve as guidelines for how your employees should make decisions. They dictate the way in people should work, whether they’re managing a project, interacting with customers, or working as a team. This is how you put your values into practice to get things done. Your operating principles are your chance to define what should and should not be done in your company.

sticky notes

With operating principles, you create a strategy for success and achieving your long-term objectives (which we’ll talk about next). Examples of operating principles include:

  • Build empathetic connections with customers: When you talk with a customer and can connect with them on an emotional level, you’re more likely to solve the problem and achieve a positive result.
  • Don’t be afraid to ask questions: The only bad question is the one you don’t ask.
  • Be curious and find answers: Use all the data and information at your disposal to figure out what’s going on and why.
  • Every employee is accountable for him/herself: Each and every day, every employee should be accountable for reaching their goals and fulfilling their responsibilities.

Leadership Activity

Include as much of your leadership team as possible when exploring your operating principles. This isn’t to say that the process of finalizing operating principles needs to include everyone. Still, the more input you have and the more time you can spend discussing the pros and cons of each idea, the better.

  • Your operating principles should spring from your core values. So, a good place to start is by defining what type of behavior best represents each of your core values.
  • Discuss the type of experience you want to deliver to your customers, how you want to interact as a team, and what type of business you want to be known for.
  • Focus on what’s important to your business, not necessarily “how to do” something.

Remember there’s no right or wrong answer, so during this leadership brainstorm, allow the team to spitball ideas. Carve out plenty of time for discussion and debate. Ask yourselves whether each principle truly reflects the way the team makes decisions, or whether people are merely paying lip service to how the team wishes things were. Also, question whether each principle would truly help people make decisions.

At the outset, make sure your team knows what process you’ll use. Though your brainstorming session may involve many people, you’ll need a smaller group to finalize things and resolve any lingering disputes. Choose one or two people who’ll have final say over the “official” operating principles. Clarify with your team, early on, who’ll have final say and when the entire team can expect to see a published version.

Leadership Activity: Define Objectives and Key Results

The next step in determining the strategic direction of your company is to define what you need to achieve. Figure out where you want to end up and how you’ll know when you’ve gotten there. These are your objectives and key results (OKRs). The OKR framework ensures that your company is aligned around specific goals, which helps you maintain focus, identify and mitigate problems, and function as a high-performance team.

Step 1: Define Your Objectives

First, define your company-wide objectives, in other words, your goals. Your objectives should describe what you want your company to achieve, and are typically inspirational rather than numeric. For example, a good objective is to “become an internationally known software company” rather than “achieve 200% growth in software deployment in eight countries in Europe and Asia.”

Leadership Activity

Typically, you should try to come up with three to five objectives for your company at a top-level. When setting OKRs, most teams use a time horizon of 3 months to a year. Shorter than that, and you’ll find it hard to achieve big goals; longer than that, and you’re not leaving enough room for the changes that will inevitably impact the company’s direction.

  • As a team, take a look at where you want your company to be in three to five years. What does that look like? What could you accomplish in a shorter period to set you on the right track?
  • Ask everyone to share ideas for what success would look like to you in an ideal world.
  • List all your objectives on a whiteboard or note cards and start refining, combining, and throwing out ideas until you reach three to five final objectives.

Within smaller organizations, it makes sense to set OKRs that apply to everyone in the company. Within larger organizations, you might want to set objectives as the departmental or team, or squad level.

Step 2: Define Key Results

Once you have your objectives, the related key results indicate if and when you reach the objective. They are well-defined numbers that you can measure and track. These help you determine if you’ve achieved your objectives. These key results should be specific, measurable, achievable, and realistic.

measurement

Each objective should have at least three key results. As an example, a key result might be something such as “implement our software with 200 new clients in Germany by the end of 2019.” They should also be time bound. Specify the period of time in which you hope to achieve your key result.

Leadership Activity

To come up with your key results, you should use the same team that you used to define your objectives.

  • Put one objective on a board and then discuss exactly what metric (the unit of measurement, not the specific number yet) would demonstrate you’d achieved the goal.
  • Ask yourself at what point, number wise, would I consider the objective attained?
  • When deciding what number to aim for, set your sights on something that feels achievable with 50% confidence. If your key results are too easy to hit, people might not stretch themselves and try new things. If they’re too aggressive, people might grow dispirited and work less hard, feeling as though failure is inevitable.
  • Only outline key results that can be tracked and measured on a monthly, quarterly, or annual basis.

Take time, as a team, to check in on your OKRs. You should be able to share progress toward the key result regularly. Also check in on how people’s confidence level has changed, in terms of the team’s ability to hit key results. If people’s confidence level has changed, ask why.

Leadership Activity: Document Directly Responsible Individuals (DRIs)

The final piece of the strategic direction puzzle is putting someone in charge of each decision, project, or task. Determine a directly responsible individual (DRI) for key areas of the business.

leadership DRI activity

The DRI model originated at Apple and was a huge driver of their success. The model ensures that your team is held accountable for every success or failure.

There are many benefits to setting DRIs for your company:

  • It cuts down on ambiguity and deferred responsibility because someone owns every task; that DRI makes sure action is taken to get things done.
  • It helps avoid anything falling through the cracks.
  • It lowers the risk that people accidentally double-up on the same work.
  • It saves time by streamlining communication and prioritizing the individuals who matter most to the task/project.
  • It helps you scale decision-making by eliminating bottlenecks where a certain leader is always expected to make the final decision.

DRIs can be used in almost any situation, whether you have a project that includes cross-functional teams, you’re dealing with new hires, or you just have leaders that are stretched too thin. If you set a DRI for every project, task, and decision, you’ll ensure that everything gets done that needs to get done.

Leadership Activity

This activity will help you more clearly define and document who’s responsible for what. Though you may think everyone’s already on the same page, you’ll likely discover areas of uncertainty. Besides, this sets you up for success as your teams grow.

  • Discuss each department in turn, pinpointing and documenting key areas of work. For instance, within “Support”, you might jot down things like responding to customer emails, responding to phone calls, processing refunds, handling demo requests, new customer onboarding, written support documentation.
  • Identify and write down the DRI for each area within a given department
  • Spend time discussing areas that don’t fit neatly within a single department, and identify those DRIs.

Document the DRI for each area of the business. Get as granular as you’d like or keep things broad. Keep a list of all active DRIs somewhere that’s easily accessible to everyone. As responsibilities change, update your DRI documentation. And when you embark on new areas of work, make sure to document the DRIs for those as well. Your DRI notes should be living, breathing document that changes over time to reflect the changes in your organization.

Leadership Activities as an Investment in Team Success

The road to success is paved with good intentions but often fails without a map. Taking the time to define your company’s strategic direction will not only ensure that your company arrives at its final destination, but that you don’t take any detours along the way. Once you have your core values, operating principles, objectives, key results, and the team members who are responsible for leading the way, then and only then will you have a chance at the type of future you want for your business.

Documenting these components makes it easier for everyone to adhere to the right norms. This becomes especially valuable as your team grows. It won’t always be feasible to guide every new hire in how you like to do things. Instead, by giving your new hires access to this information, (and letting them refer back to it as often as they wish,) the organization can scale efficiently. Your entire team will find it easier to grow and thrive together.