How Do Leaders Create Alignment?

While weak leaders blame their followers for a lack of alignment, strong leaders know that it is their responsibility to create it. Alignment doesn’t just happen. It is created.

A Team Working Together to Row a Boat - Photo courtesy of ©iStockphoto.com/EasyBuy4u, Image #4124344

Photo courtesy of ©iStockphoto.com/EasyBuy4u

Years ago, I was making a major presentation to a prospective client. My boss was there, as was my boss’s boss (aka “The Big Boss”). Our goal was to sign the client and win his business. Everyone on our team was nervous, especially me—since I was the one doing the presenting.

Prior to the meeting, I had shared my presentation with my boss. He reviewed it carefully and offered some helpful feedback. Once we were both happy with it, he shared it with the Big Boss. He didn’t comment, so we both assumed he was fine with it. (This was his typical m.o.)

However, as I was actually making the presentation, I could tell that the Big Boss was uncomfortable. He didn’t say anything, but he was visibly agitated. I sensed that we weren’t aligned. However, he remained silent.

After the presentation, the prospect asked me several direct questions. I provided what I thought were simple and honest answers. My boss chimed in a few times to agree or amplify. The prospect seemed satisfied. In fact, he gave us his permission to proceed with a contract. He expressed his enthusiasm about doing business together. We shook hands and left.

I was proud of the outcome. My boss was delighted. We moved on to the next thing.

A few days after the meeting, the Big Boss sent me a blistering memo. (This was in the days before email.) He copied my boss. He was not happy with the financial arrangement I had proposed in the meeting. He challenged my motives, going so far as to ask if I was in alliance with the other side. It was hurtful and demoralizing. I almost quit.

Although painful at the time, the experience was also instructive. Looking back on it, I understand that, as a leader, I am responsible for creating organizational alignment with my team. If something slips out of alignment and I am unhappy with the outcome, then I have to ask, What was it about my leadership that created this outcome? This is something I am sure the Big Boss never did.

Creating alignment with your team consists of three components:

  1. Contact. You cannot keep your team aligned unless you have frequent contact with them. They are going to do the best with what you give them. If you don’t spend time with them, it is inevitable that they are going to make decisions you are uncomfortable with. It is your responsibility to initiate this contact. You can do this through regular one-on-one meetings, staff meetings, and by just walking around.
  2. Communication. Contact is not enough. You have to communicate. Your people cannot read your mind. They need to know what you expect. They need to understand the mission and the vision. You need to verbalize it. Over and over again. In addition, if you don’t like something, you need to speak up—before you get into a high stakes situation where dialog is happening in real time.
  3. Connection. Communication is not even enough. For true alignment to take place, your people have to know and trust your heart. They have to be committed to your success and the success of the team. You may be tempted to think that you are entitled to this by virtue of employing them. You’re not. You can buy their presence, but you can’t buy their heart. You must earn it. You can only create a connection—and thus alignment—when you open your heart and let them in.

Alignment is critical if you want to get the right things done and move your organization forward in the most effective and efficient way possible. However, it won’t happen on it’s own. As a leader, you must take the initiative to create it.

Question: Is your team aligned? What can you do today to create it?
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  • Geoff Webb

    Great post, Michael. I love how these three "C"s build on one another. Connection is big goal, but you can't get there without consistent contact and clear communication.

    I especially love, "You can buy their presence, but you can’t buy their heart. You must earn it." Perfect.

    Being transparent and building that trust is critical. Recently I shared three ways to build trust, some might find it interesting: http://geoffreywebb.wordpress.com/2010/02/10/how-

    Thanks again…and enjoy your remaining time in our little town :)

    My recent post Taking Responsibility as a Leader

    • http://intensedebate.com/people/michaelhyatt Michael Hyatt

      I just read your post, Geoff. It is excellent. Trust is essential!

  • http://leadershipfreak.wordpress.com Dan-Leadership Freak

    Michael,

    I'll give a hearty amen to the power of alignment.

    I agree with Geoff, love how the three C's build.

    For our leadership team vision is the galvanizing force that keeps us aligned. I've led teams that didn't share vision and it's like pushing a rope. Alignment binds us to shared goals.

    Regards,

    Leadership Freak
    Dan Rockwell
    My recent post A summary of 5 leadership books

  • http://leadershipfreak.wordpress.com Dan-Leadership Freak

    Michael,

    I'll give a hearty amen to the power of alignment.

    I agree with Geoff, love how the three C's build.

    For our leadership team vision is the galvanizing force that keeps us aligned. I've led teams that didn't share vision and it's like pushing a rope. Alignment binds us to shared goals.

    Regards,

    Leadership Freak
    Dan Rockwell
    My recent post A summary of 5 leadership books

  • http://intensedebate.com/people/jody_fransch Jody T Fransch

    Michael

    I thank you for sharing your experience with us which really highlighted your point of alignment beautifully. You hit the nail right on the head when you said: "…as a leader, I am responsible for creating organizational alignment with my team.'" This is so true because it all starts and ends with leadership. Strong leaders result in strong organizations.
    Great post, thank you!
    My recent post How To Live Longer, Better

  • Clear2Go

    Amazing post! and so true. I have worked with and for leaders where I wanted to get up in the morning and go to work and I have worked for leaders where I was constantly trying to understand their goals and get them to commit — it sucked. Looking back, I realize that one of the differences between the two situations was this.

    The key for me was "then I have to ask, What was it about my leadership that created this outcome?". Being able to honestly ask yourself that question and answer it indicates a certain level of knowing yourself well and being comfortable with yourself. It is something that everyone should strive to be able to do.

  • Juan

    I see strategies coming from the top that are lost in the limbo, those nice announcements are easily forgotten due to lack of focus and repetition, leading by example.

    A vivid example is the famous Core Values – one of them is Customer Service – it is easily forgotten when there is a glitch in the shipping- system resolving on no shipments for the day. And then we see in frames "Customer Service" a core value. How can you respond to your customers due to a software glitch you are not receiving your goods tomorrow, if you have production people lined-up – what are those customers supposed to do? Send them home?

    Why – lack of alignment between the upper-echelons and the front line people.

    However those companies that live by their values – are the leaders, are the ones that get the "buck" for us and you see an aligned corporation where everybody is in sync.

  • http://www.yuzzi.com Rick Yuzzi

    Were the financial details reviewed with the big boss in your prep meeting? It sounds to me like you and your boss were in alignment, since he was pleased after the meeting, but he and the big boss were not. I think sometimes this happens because as you get more comfortable with your team members taking on more responsibility and delegate more tasks, you can lose touch with some of important items. In the case of your "big boss", though, I suspect he failed in all three of your points above. Good advice. Thanks!

    • http://intensedebate.com/people/michaelhyatt Michael Hyatt

      Yes, the financial details were all part of the presentation. Evidently, he never reviewed it. He was very disengaged. Every now and then he would “come to” like a grizzly that had been hibernating. He was grouchy and hungry!

  • http://intensedebate.com/people/patriciazell patriciazell

    Right now, my high school colleagues and I are dealing with students who do not want to do their work–it's almost across the board. I don't know if it's the economy or what, but we're losing our kids. Our poverty rate has gone up dramatically. Your third point–connection–is the one place where we are struggling. My students complain that they never get to do the things the rich kids get to do, so they aren't valuing what we're offering. Somehow we have to build a connection for our students–once they have the connection, the work should follow.

    Sometimes I think we should have successful business leaders do some of our professional development. Thanks, Michael, for your substantive help!
    My recent post #31 BECOMING A SON OF GOD: THE BAPTISM OF FIRE

  • http://intensedebate.com/people/patriciazell patriciazell

    Right now, my high school colleagues and I are dealing with students who do not want to do their work–it's almost across the board. I don't know if it's the economy or what, but we're losing our kids. Our poverty rate has gone up dramatically. Your third point–connection–is the one place where we are struggling. My students complain that they never get to do the things the rich kids get to do, so they aren't valuing what we're offering. Somehow we have to build a connection for our students–once they have the connection, the work should follow.

    Sometimes I think we should have successful business leaders do some of our professional development. Thanks, Michael, for your substantive help!
    My recent post #31 BECOMING A SON OF GOD: THE BAPTISM OF FIRE

    • http://michaelsgray.com Michael Gray

      Excellent point. A Michael-Hyatt-Professional-Development-Day would do much more to enhance our educational system than another day-long course on lesson planning. [blech]

      Have you ever done a presentation for public educators Michael?

  • http://fireandhammer.blogspot.com Dennis

    Thanks for this post. As I read the 3 C's I thought of how God did these very things in Jesus during his ministry here on earth.

    You seem to have a busy schedule. Are you able to devote enough time to these steps and if so how much of a challenge is it at Thomas Nelson?
    My recent post Gossip as Entertainment

    • http://intensedebate.com/people/michaelhyatt Michael Hyatt

      Everyone I know is busier than ever. Making time for these things is a constant challenge. Whenever I sense that my team is out of alignment, I can trace it right back to me.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1549723842 Rich Dixon

    I'm thinking this is exactly what Jesus did. He spent three years making sure His disciples knew His heart, and thay they were connected at the deepest level.

    He didn't just say, "I'm God (the big boss), so you know what to do." He patiently, carefully, created the sort of heart connection that assured they could go forward on their own (with a lot of support from the Spirit).
    My recent post The Tyranny Of Nice

    • http://www.twitter.com/abbylive Abby

      So true!

  • http://twitter.com/MarkYoungBooks @MarkYoungBooks

    Jesus turned the concept of leadership upside down, signified by stooping down and washing the disciples; feet. As you point out, Mike, effective leadership–whether business, family, or community–requires the leader's involvement and investment in others. I like your last remarks, "You can buy their presence, but you can’t buy their heart. You must earn it. " Christ demonstrated to us the perfect model of leadership. He gave everything to those he loved.
    My recent post Gangs

  • http://twitter.com/MarkYoungBooks @MarkYoungBooks

    Jesus turned the concept of leadership upside down, signified by stooping down and washing the disciples; feet. As you point out, Mike, effective leadership–whether business, family, or community–requires the leader's involvement and investment in others. I like your last remarks, "You can buy their presence, but you can’t buy their heart. You must earn it. " Christ demonstrated to us the perfect model of leadership. He gave everything to those he loved.
    My recent post Gangs

  • http://www.blissassociates.com Bill Bliss

    Michael,

    Another excellent post. I particularly agree with your statement that when the big boss is disappointed, he must ask himself what his role was in that outcome. I have always coached senior leaders, CEOs and other C-level executives to ask that same question. It is amazing how many times they get an “a-ha” moment just from that one question. It is potentially a life changer from a leadership point of view.

    If the leader is all about themselves and the power they have, they will never ask this question. If the leader is about serving others, he will always ask this question.

    Thanks again.

    Bill

  • http://intensedebate.com/people/success2you John Richardson

    Michael, thanks for another great post. At the school district where I work, our guiding word of the year has been "Trust." This has been especially helpful with state budget cuts and a huge amount of uncertainty. I'm thankful that our Superintendent and most of our leadership staff exhibit a great amount of transparency (as Geoff mentioned) and really care about the jobs of each and every employee. They have had frequent meetings with staff and have built a huge wall of trust going forward. They have had contact, provided communication, and built a connection with each employee. it definitely makes it easier to sleep at night.

    I think for an individual leader, one of the best ways to think of your job is that of an entrepreneur. Michael Gerber, in his fantastic book,the E-Myth Revisited, laid out three traits that an entrepreneur needs. I think these apply to leaders too.

    1. Technician: Be good at the technical task of the job you are performing.
    2. Entrepreneur: Have a vision for your business
    3. Manager: Be able to manage your employees and your finances well.

    With leaders in the technology fields, I've noticed that many are great technicians and entrepreneurs, but many lack management skills. Your 3C list above should be required reading for all leaders, but especially for people that have come up through the ranks from technician to leader. Building connections with your employees is just as important as job training and project development.

    My recent post Checklists and Why Diets Fail

  • http://www.informatica.com/company/leadership/Pages/index.aspx Ivan Chong

    Great post Michael – I retweeted the link to your blog post. It was a good reminder that I need to invest more time communicating the strategy and direction of our team. I also liked your point about connecting. I’ve found that spending time with people and listening to their concerns and ideas is a simple way to start building a connection with them. They also need to hear leaders explain how the strategy and objectives connect back to their efforts and how the success of the organization is in line with their personal growth and success.

  • James

    I have struggles with this at my place of employment and frequently face similar situations with one of the owners. My solution has been to accept him as he is and do my best to communicate as often and as accurate as possible.

  • http://twitter.com/JoshuaSandefur @JoshuaSandefur

    This has challenged me! As John Maxwell would say, "Everything rises and falls on leadership." I am charged by this! I will work to apply these steps in how I lead where I work.

  • http://www.brandonjenniferbruce.com Brandon Bruce

    Wow! Thank you!

  • Mitch Ebie

    That is very true, thanks Michael for the post. I have been doing some reading lately about the topic of success in the workplace. I would add to your list of "c" words that when communicating do not criticize, condemn or complain. These are not my words though I agree, they are the words of Dale Carnegie after he studied some great leaders such as Abraham Lincoln, Benjamin Franklin, Henry Ford and Charles Schwab.

  • http://michaelsgray.com Michael Gray

    Great article for those in leadership.

    As a leader yourself, I wonder how you feel about Seth Godin's advice to potential linchpins who are in charge of projects like the one you mentioned from your past experience. He recommends early thrashing with loads of brainstorming and plenty of communication with the "higher-ups", and then challenges us to push for a hands-off approach from bosses once the project gets underway (with no last-minute alterations allowed). From an employee's point of view, this sounds freeing, but from a leader's perspective, I imagine it feels tremendously risky.

    Do you create allignment at the outset and then let the project go, or do you prefer to stay involved from beggining to end?

    • http://intensedebate.com/people/michaelhyatt Michael Hyatt

      In general, I agree with Seth. However, it depends on the situation. The more I trust the people involved, the easier it is to let go. It's up to me, as the leader, to create the alignment, and then check in along the way. I see this as part of the alignment job. Alignment is not static. You have it, then you lose it. As a leader you have to put a lot of energy into keeping it. Thanks.

      • http://michaelsgray.com Michael Gray

        On another note, I have found (from direct experience unfortunately) that the most volatile management situation is one where vision and direction go from Big Boss –> boss –> employee, but the chain of negative feedback goes from Big Boss –> employee. When an employee doesn't have direct access to the person who decided his fate, that's a lose-lose situation. Sounds somewhat like what happened to you.

  • http://twitter.com/cozthegrov @cozthegrov

    Leading from the middle amplifies the importance of the 3 C's too. So many people get intimidated when asked to lead a truly "cross-functional" team, but no matter where you sit in the org chart your 3 C's are critical. I loved what John Maxwell had to say about leading from the middle in his book, The 360 Leader.

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  • http://www.twitter.com/danieldecker Daniel Decker

    I think you've touched on something really important with this post. There are plenty of people who talk about "leadership" but it seems the "alignment" factor doesn't get talked about enough. It's a practical tool for leaders and anyone with influence. You can't lead unless others are willing to follow. Alignment makes the journey successful.

    Great tips above. I think Communication is a biggie. Not just white noise communication but clearly laying out vision and expectations for others.

  • http://www.dialect.com/blog Andy Kanefield

    Michael, I loved this post. I'm finding that leaders are so busy with short-term goals that they are not really checking alignment around bigger business issues. I'd be interested in how leaders gage alignment within their organizations. I know you've written about vision as being critical guide-post (I've blogged about your comments at http://www.dialect.com/blog/why-vision-matters/), but I find that there are other ways leaders look for alignment and I'd be curious about what you think – as well as your readers. Thanks, Andy
    My recent post Why Vision Matters

  • Mia

    THIS IS GREAT!

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  • http://www.innercompass.com.au Zoe Routh

    Fabulous post! Creating alignment is indeed essential – especially connecting from the heart as you say. I just wrote an article about the top 3 Leadership mistakes – and your comments about alignment assume you haven't made the 3rd mistake – not quitting soon enough – if you're leader of the wrong tribe. You can read the article here: http://tinyurl.com/ybmteam I'd love to hear your thoughts!
    My recent post Become A Magnetic Leader…

  • http://www.randomactsofleadership.com Susan Mazza

    Creating alignment is clearly a leaders responsibility. Love your three C's. Abdicating that responsibility in any way has big costs in both results and morale. The payoff is that it makes it much easier to blame someone when things don't go the way you want. Perhaps the commitment to and practice of alignment is what separates the people who are truly leading from those who rely on the power and authority of their position.
    My recent post When Delegation Becomes Abdication

  • http://www.kevinwmccarthy.com/my_weblog/2010/02/how-can-i-be-a-better-leader.html Kevin W. McCarthy

    Hi Mike,
    I have great respect for you work and for posing the question. I've invested a career in helping both individuals and organizations create alignment and integration. The often lost concept is that alignment first needs to be with God's will or, in layman's term, purpose.

    Please forgive the seemingly blatant plug, but I'm posting videos on my blog regarding this very issue of alignment. I've provided a link to my first video at http://www.kevinwmccarthy.com. Here I'm describing the On-Purpose Principle – aligning the purpose of the person with the purpose of the organization.

    Be On-Purpose!
    Kevin

    My recent post Are You Maturing or Just Getting Old?

  • http://intensedebate.com/profiles/rikerjoe rikerjoe

    I'm a believer in a leadership model built upon alignment, action, and results. When I saw your post on alignment I was very excited to read it. As I reflect on the three components – contact, communication, and connection – and play them out with what is happening in my world at present, I have to say this: you hit the nail on the head, Michael. Thank you for such an insightful post.

  • Chris Edwards

    Michael, I found your article on how leaders create alignment very insightful. In particular, I found your last point about leaders taking the initiative to create alignment the most important. This is because many leaders do not appreciate that aligned teams perform better and produce better results than teams that are not aligned. In addition, they don't seem to appreciate that their efforts to build and maintain team alignment should be process driven. The more process driven a team is the better aligned it becomes. I have found that the keys to an effective team alignment process are:
    1. A meeting rhythm that brings teams together on a regular basis to work on their most important metrics and priorities.
    2. An operating plan or strategy that clarifies who the team is, where it is going, how it is going to get there and what it needs to accomplish.
    3. Constructive, trust and accountability based, teamwork that encourages passionate debate about the team's most important issues.
    These elements are similar to you contact, communication and connection components, except that they are framed as part of a team alignment process, which I believe is the key to achieving and maintaining team alignment.

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  • Mark DeJesus

    Great post Michael. In practicing this, people can become leader of leaders!

  • Debbie Hedderly

    Leaders definitely need to remember that their team cannot read their mind. Great example and good reminder for all of us. As a follower, we may need to clarify if our leader does not.