THE JOURNAL OF PEOPLE + STRATEGY
Align by Design | People + Strategy | Winter 2024
January 8, 2024
After spending nearly a decade in various executive roles at Verizon, Sowmyanarayan Sampath was named the CEO of Verizon Consumer in 2023. People + Strategy articles editor Adam Bryant sat down with Sampath to discuss his strategies for creating alignment of purpose and strategy throughout the company’s workforce.
People + Strategy: What does alignment mean to you in a leadership context?
SAMPATH: To me, alignment means, “What is the mountain you need to climb?” But how you climb the mountain is just as important. In a post-COVID environment, people are not always together—they are distributed by space, by time and even by purpose. Adding to the challenge is the fact that we have multi-generational leaders working together, and they work very differently. So, you have to manage through the inevitable points of friction.
P+S: Can you elaborate?
SAMPATH: The highest value that a leader can provide is to take out friction. There can be friction over resources or over budgets. It can be because of personalities or because people are working toward different purposes. If I have any extra time in a day, I use it to take friction out. It just frees up headspace for people to do their jobs much better, and it helps build alignment.
P+S: What are some fundamentals for creating alignment?
SAMPATH: One is prioritization. Prioritization is important at every level in an organization, from the CEO to the front lines. What are the three or four things you are going to focus on? Many companies say things like “Grow revenue,” “Reduce our expenses” and “Talent is our biggest asset.”
Those are not priorities because a priority has to have a hidden trade-off built in. If you just tell people the priorities without acknowledging the trade-offs, then they will try to do everything, which means they will do nothing, and you are back to square one.
P+S: We are living in an age in which employees are much more vocal about their expectations of their companies, and often, they have a wide range of opinions. Part of your role as a leader is to create a shared narrative for everyone that they can agree on.
SAMPATH: It takes time. It takes a lot of patience. Something may be obvious to you because you’ve been repeating it for three months, but others might be hearing it for the first time. So you have to tell people the “why” of your decisions, and you have to be consistent and genuine in the way you tell the story.
People want to work for companies that have a purpose. If you tell them, “This is your priority,” they want to understand the “why.” They want to know how it impacts them, how it impacts society and how it balances out all the stakeholders.
P+S: What are your observations on how to make sure that a matrix structure actually provides a competitive advantage?
SAMPATH: Matrixes are designed for scale, and they are designed for expertise, with centers of excellence. If you don’t exploit your matrix to scale or to take advantage of specialized competencies, you’re fighting it. And fighting a matrix is not a good thing. We saw that in the Keanu Reeves movie [“The Matrix”]. It’s true in life as well. The matrix will win.
Matrixes don’t work for two reasons. One is people are working on different goals. Let’s say part of the organization is driving sales, while another is trying to drive margin. You don’t need to be an organizational psychologist to know that you’re going to create tension. That’s why you have to be so clear about goals and targets, and also what the trade-offs are.
And when there is friction, you have to address it. Sometimes that means picking up the phone and talking to your peers. That’s why friction in a matrix often doesn’t get resolved, because people are uncomfortable picking up the phone. So, when you see something, you have to say something.
The highest value that a leader can provide is to take out friction. … If I have any extra time in a day, I use it to take friction out. It just frees up headspace for people to do their jobs much better, and it helps build alignment.
P+S: How do you ensure that you don’t become the only person who resolves points of friction?
SAMPATH: Some of it is setting expectations. When you think you can solve all the friction on your team, it’s a kiss of death for you because people then just sit back, fold their hands, order buttered popcorn and watch the movie. So, you do have to set expectations and sometimes say, “No. You solve it. Come back to me in 48 hours.” You have to put pressure back on the teams to solve problems. Then at some point they get it.
P+S: Part of building alignment is creating a shared mindset about embracing the idea of transformation. How do you do that?
SAMPATH: People in general are quite comfortable with uncertainty. We have this notion that all our teams want is certainty. But they’re human beings. Their life is not certain. People are more comfortable with uncertainty than we sometimes give them credit for.
But I think two approaches are important. You’re going to have to be transparent. I have never found a situation where I have been transparent and then said, “Oh, I wish I hadn’t been so transparent.” Second is consistency. You cannot change your message every few weeks. A lot of people do that because they don’t prep and they might use different words, and people pick up on that.
Sometimes transformation means you have to let some people go. And yes, you have to make sure they are treated well. But you also have to focus on the people who are staying. Why should they come to work every day? What’s the vision? For those who have chosen to stay, what’s in it for them?
P+S: A lot of companies struggle with clarifying their priorities and making trade-offs. Why do you think that is?
SAMPATH: Because friction involves stakeholder management. Trade-offs involve stakeholder management. Sometimes people don’t want to deal with it. You have employees, customers, shareholders and the broader society. You may not want to sort some of those issues out, so you obfuscate things because you don’t want to acknowledge or deal with the trade-offs. That’s why it’s tough.
P+S: Part of the challenge is that some stakeholders expect companies to get involved in a lot of broader issues in society.
SAMPATH: There are some fundamental things that every company should stand for as part of its value system, like equity, equality and diversity. But it’s not a company’s place to opine on every single thing just because it impacts some employees. If it fundamentally affects our core value system, you need to have an opinion about it. We have such a large and diverse workforce, and so everyone will be impacted by something every single day. If you get caught up in every issue, you’ll just end up polarizing the company.
P+S: What do you see as the role of HR in building and creating alignment in an organization?
SAMPATH: An important role of HR is not just talent management, but talent enhancement. Part of bringing out the best in people is to address the friction and the chaos that are in every organization.
HR also has to think about internal communications, and they can help ensure there is alignment from top to bottom. Sometimes you’re aligned at the top, but you’re not aligned deeper in the organization. There has to be a very careful process of taking corporate priorities and then aligning them to individual functions.
Messages can get lost in translation. And translation always kills nuance. We may say something at the leadership team level, but by the time the message gets passed down to the third or fourth layer, it may be dumbed down, which means it loses specificity. Or they adopt the message for their function, and in the process they may add too many ingredients to it. It should be like French cooking, with just a few ingredients. So, consistency and translation management of the alignment is super important.
P+S: So how do you do that? As the CEO, how do you ensure that the message remains consistent all the way down?
SAMPATH: A lot of it is inspection. You’re going to have to inspect when you do your operations reviews. When you talk to people, you ask, “What are your priorities today?” That’s when you find out it’s either aligned or not. There’s no shortcut to this. Second, use your comms team and your HR business partners very effectively. Ensure they are plugged in and monitoring how the message is translated down through the organization.