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THE JOURNAL OF PEOPLE + STRATEGY

Francesca Luthi, Jacqui Canney, Paulo Pisano

The Art of Building Alignment | People + Strategy | Winter 2024

January 8, 2024

People + Strategy invited three veteran HR leaders to share their insights and key lessons on the art of building alignment.

Prior to the pandemic, the word alignment often came up in the narrow context of strategy discussions, underscoring the importance of ensuring that an organization’s incentives and goals were in sync. But alignment today captures one of the universal and difficult challenges of leadership: creating a shared narrative within an organization about purpose, mission, values, strategy, and when and how to engage on broader societal issues.

At a time when the world is so polarized, and when employees are not shy about sharing their opinions, how can leaders create a shared narrative within the metaphorical four walls of their organization? And what is HR’s role in driving that conversation?

Focus Your Team on Common Goals and Purpose, Not Consensus

by Francesca Luthi, Chief Operating Officer at Assurant

Alignment, to me, means getting everybody working toward a common goal. It is never about obtaining agreement or consensus with everybody thinking the same way. That stifles diverse thinking and ultimately, success.

When embarking on a transformational effort, people will have different motivations, fears and aspirations. But if the outcome is clear and teams see their potential, you’re going to build alignment toward that goal.

Leaders sometimes feel pressure to win everybody over, but that can backfire and work against you when you’re driving transformational change. You may gravitate toward consensus versus leveraging different perspectives to achieve your goal. Plus, it’s often unrealistic and perhaps impossible to get full agreement on the course of action.

Being open to different paths allows you to channel different perspectives in a powerful way. You want people who think differently and contribute, as opposed to gravitating to the lowest common basis of agreement.

All the disruption we’ve seen the past few years makes this harder, of course. When people feel stressed, they tend to look inward and hold on tighter to their own perspectives, which means they are less likely to listen. People may say they are comfortable with change, but it’s easier to continue in the way they’ve always done things. If there were a perfect, repeatable playbook, change wouldn’t be so hard, and we’d be driving a tremendous amount of value every time. But that’s just not the case.

That’s why I see value in anchoring to universal guiding principles for any organization undergoing transformation or disruption. During the COVID-19 pandemic, for example, we had employees who were very concerned about coming to an office. We had conflicting data points, and the science was evolving so quickly. Amid the uncertainty, we defined guiding principles to make sure we were providing essential services to our clients and customers while not jeopardizing the health of our employees and the community. The key value of those guiding principles was that they conveyed a framework for decision-making and action. It was empowering and comforting and enabled swift alignment and progress—even in the face of the greatest uncertainty.

These principles also underscored the value of regular, steady and constant communication. Say what you know as soon as you can, and if you don’t know, be transparent about it. That builds inclusion because people sometimes mistakenly assume that leaders have all the answers or that we always prioritize one stakeholder over another. That’s simply not true. It’s a balancing act every day to serve our customers, employees, communities and shareholders to ensure everyone feels seen and heard.

And as leaders, we always have to role model that transparency, empathy and openness to different perspectives, versus being entrenched in your view. It can be easy, especially when you are in a specialist role, to fall into a trap and think, “These are the facts. They’re proven. Therefore, I’m right.” But as you progress in your career, you need to be open to listening to understand, not to be right. While you may be right on the technical aspects of a decision, the context may require a more nuanced approach. You have to see yourself as an athlete who can adapt to different terrain. The leaders of the future are those who can listen, flex and adapt, because that’s what organizations need as change continues to accelerate.

It’s on us to inspire that openness to change throughout the company, especially when people are feeling overwhelmed by a big transformation. When you see this mountain in front of you and you’re tired or scared, you may lose perspective. Instead, there is reassurance in looking back and recognizing, “Look how far we’ve come.” Take the time to celebrate what you’ve achieved and remember how daunting it seemed at the very beginning. And then have a clear goal that helps people understand how their individual work is building toward a much bigger collective impact.

‘As you progress in your career, you need to be open to listening to understand, not to be right. The leaders of the future are those who can listen, flex and adapt, because that’s what organizations need as change continues to accelerate.’ — Francesca Luthi

People can get siloed in their teams. It’s important to remind them how their work is connected to the company’s purpose.

As much as it’s our role as leaders to create a sense of urgency, we need to be patient and recognize that we all sometimes need a timeout. When you recognize it in yourself or capture that moment with an employee and give them space, it provides the energy to keep moving forward. We talk so much about the importance of mental health, but as leaders, we must set up resources of support and continue to reinforce them through communications and employee forums. Take the pulse of your organization regularly so you can set a pace the organization can handle.

Driving alignment is such a huge opportunity for HR more broadly. We are at the center of change—shifting our focus toward enabling our business and our talent. The question of “What are we here to do and who are we here to serve?” becomes the rallying cry for alignment and conversation that helps you articulate the broader role of our company.

For us, it’s about serving our clients and customers. To do that, we must recruit, engage, develop and retain the best talent. By connecting everything back to that higher purpose, it gets people out of any siloed mindset. After all, that’s the fundamental role of HR—to align talent and teams to achieve our big goals.

 

Aligning for Scale: How the Fusion of Values and Strategy Can Unlock Growth

By Jacqui Canney, Chief People Officer at ServiceNow

Because of our rapid growth at ServiceNow—we had 16,000 employees in 2021 and now we have more than 22,000—my challenge is to scale and grow the global workforce, built on a foundation of flexibility and empathy, and to leverage technology to support our people and our customers.

To accomplish this, we need to prioritize organizational alignment with a culture, business strategy and talent strategy that work together in a cohesive way. We’ve done this in four ways:

1.  A Commitment that Starts with Our ‘People Pact’

Alignment starts with our “People Pact.” It’s our commitment that if you come to ServiceNow, you’ll have the opportunity to live your best life, do your best work and fulfill our purpose together. It ties to our greater North Star—to make work better for everyone—and is woven into everything we do as we continue to scale and grow.

We built the People Pact because we needed our employees to understand how our strategy and culture come together. As our team designed the pact, we asked a series of questions. How are we bringing people into the culture? How are we getting people to feel connected to the company? We held focus groups and conducted research. We wanted this commitment to be more than an employee value proposition. Now, beyond sharing and talking about the People Pact, we need to show our employees how it comes to life.

To make these ideas concrete, we encourage people to share stories about living the People Pact during global meetings and events, such as moving to an important new role or working on a big project. Then we listen. Our communications team measures us on those talks with pulse-survey questions after every meeting. That feedback tells us where we can do better, and it helps us refine our strategy. We constantly iterate so employees understand our People Pact and how they can help shape our culture and company.

2.  A Commitment to Values and Voices

With so much going on in the world, we also need a framework to align on how we engage as a company and decide which issues to address. Taking care of our employees is always my anchor. We have to respect other people’s views and choose the course that ties back to our values, purpose, strategy and culture.

We ask ourselves: Is this a ServiceNow critical issue? What’s the impact on our people? Is it in line with our values? Then, if we are going to speak out, who is the right person to talk about it? What should we say? That process helps us be transparent with our people and true to who we are as a company. When there are questions about why a certain decision was made, we have open and honest conversations with our people. These conversations show vulnerability at the leadership level. We don’t always get it right, but we show there was a rationale for making the choice and why we believed it was the right thing to do.

We hire for character, and everyone wants a good outcome. The question is, how do you get the best out of listening to all those opinions and points of view and then figure out a way forward? That can be hard, even at the most senior level. I see it as my job to listen first, then help find the alignment and see all sides of an issue.

3.  A Talent Strategy that Is the Business Strategy

We work hard to develop alignment on our business strategy too, of course. We believe that the talent strategy is the business strategy, and that inclusion and diversity need to be woven into everything we do. Diversity boosts innovation. We need to ensure that all voices are heard and everyone has a seat at the table. We want all our people, including underrepresented groups, to feel engaged, which fosters a deep sense of belonging.

We also have to live up to our commitments. It’s obvious when companies don’t do that—they’ll say one thing but do another. A former boss once said to me, “You get nine points for doing and one point for talking.” Pre-COVID, that alignment was more operationally focused. Now the “how” of what you are doing matters just as much as the “what.” The ROI to operating this way is real. Your organization will differentiate itself because you’re doing things for the right reasons, which builds trust. Your business and people will benefit.

4.  A Focus on Communication and Technology

To make messages stick requires relentless communication. Our CEO often says, “Anything worth communicating is almost always under-communicated.” It’s not the job of your employees to get what you are saying. It’s your job as the leader to make sure everyone understands. Sometimes you can get a little fatigued from repeating messages, but you’ve got to keep it up. Technology can also be an important tool for reinforcing messages, building alignment and driving change. I’m lucky to be in a place where I have great access to data and insights. I see how much faster we can move and how much more relevant our work can be for our people, because I know what they want and need.

‘To make messages stick requires relentless communication. It’s not the job of your employees to get what you are saying. It’s your job as the leader to make sure everyone understands.’ — Jacqui Canney

All of this speaks to how fundamentally the HR function has changed. There’s no playbook for navigating so much disruption and uncertainty in the world. But we have a responsibility as HR leaders to be open and adapt to change. We have to think about what alignment means for the future of this function and how we’re bringing the next generation of leaders along.

That focus on the next generation is about stewardship. There is a coalition of willing CHROs who are working together on this, and we are all focused on how people coming behind us will step in to do the job, reimagine HR and maintain organizational alignment. One of the most exciting parts of my job is to help paint the future.

 

Culture Is the Most Important Pillar in Your Foundation of Alignment

By Paulo Pisano, Chief HR Officer, Booking Holdings

Uniting teams around a shared mission, purpose and way of working can be a challenge for organizations of all sizes. But as successful businesses expand geographically or add more products and services, the challenge intensifies as organizations grapple with the additional complexity that naturally ensues with scale.

Managing that increased complexity and connecting the dots to strengthen focus, to build cohesion and to deliver results is a responsibility that falls on the organization’s leaders. In my experience, the most successful leaders strike a fine balance between helping teams accept and navigate the complexities of the environment, while also guiding them to shift the time, energy and other resources demanded by the management of internal complexity toward the ultimate goal of creating value for customers and stakeholders externally.

The road to doing this isn’t simple. The more complex your organization—the bigger, busier or more distributed your workforce is—the more opportunities you have for misalignment because, just by definition, you have more things that you have to align. More messages might get lost in translation as they get passed across and down through the organization. There are more opportunities for conflicting priorities. There might be more bureaucracy or less clarity on decision-making. There are more disparate insights to connect. More friction.

While some internal friction can be good—leading to new ideas, improved ways of working and professional development—unnecessary friction leads to frustration and wasted time, energy and money. And so, the key role for leaders in creating alignment is to cut through the complexity, to understand what matters most and what matters less, and to know that in a given moment, priorities might change. It’s a constant exercise.

In this vein, establishing an understanding of the strategic intent of the organization is key. In conversations I regularly hold with some of my counterparts and practitioners in other organizations, a common observation is that the occurrence of a clear, unique and wellarticulated strategy is rare.

More often than not, companies have a business plan, they have product/service road maps and they have execution plans, rather than a deep articulation of what they are going to do, and also what they are not going to do, in order to deliver on those plans. Without that clarity, it’s difficult to define what culture and what allocation of limited resources you need to support and deliver on the strategy. But if the strategy is clear—and its trade-offs understood—you can assess which aspects of your culture are supporting you and which are hindering you. And you can shape it, consciously.

Culture cannot be overestimated as perhaps the most important pillar in the foundation to enable alignment and thus, the delivery of the strategy. Every organization has a culture, whether it has been intentionally worked on or not. So the question is how to deliberately work on the cultural levers so that the workforce is aligned in their mindsets, behaviors and ways of working to enable the organization’s success.

To make progress toward achieving cultural alignment, CEOs not only have to surround themselves with the right people, but they have to invest strongly in the effectiveness of their team. The leadership team is key to ensuring alignment is put into practice and communicated through the organization. The C-suite is the starting point.

If there is too much complexity or inconsistency within the leadership team, it’s bound to amplify complexity for the rest of the organization. Leaders must have a consistent articulation of the key messages that matter to their organization, to the point that people may have heard them so often that they may be bored of them. In the same breath, it is the leadership team’s responsibility to also be consistent in living by the ideas and values underpinning the desired culture.

‘The key role for leaders in creating alignment is to cut through the complexity, to understand what matters most and what matters less, and to know that in a given moment, priorities might change. It’s a constant exercise.’ — Paulo Pisano

Alongside leadership, HR plays a particularly important role in the journey toward alignment. HR practitioners, and CHROs in particular, can be the ones to ask the difficult questions, such as pressing for more clarity on the overall strategy or specific priorities to better align the work that we do with the direction of the company. By asking good questions, we have the opportunity to influence key levers and help leaders clarify their thinking indirectly while also increasing understanding among the team.

More directly, we can drive impact by strengthening our role as trusted advisors to the CEO and wider leadership team. From our vantage point, we can be uniquely impactful because we come from a neutral place of seeing the big picture, rather than trying to advocate for a specific part of the business. We’re important enablers, and we can have a big impact by supporting our leaders and wider organizations to cut through complexity to facilitate that alignment. But to do that with credibility, we also need to walk the talk on behaving consistently with the culture we seek to foster, doing fewer things better and ensuring HR is relentlessly focused on what is most important.

 

This article was originally published in the Winter 2024 issue of The Journal of People + Strategy, where the ExCo Group’s CEO, David Reimer, and senior managing director, Adam Bryant, are editors.

Click here to download the full winter 2024 issue.