Over 75 years ago, Chester Barnard published a landmark book called “The Functions of the Executive.” In it, he makes a key observation: “Successful cooperation in or by formal organizations is the abnormal, not the normal, condition.”
In other words, organizations don’t cooperate naturally. That’s why one of the fundamental roles of the CEO is to proactively build the basis of successful cooperation: organizational alignment.
In the business world, we talk about alignment all the time, but it’s important to recognize the three specific forms it takes, and then set up systems to help support all three. Fail at this task and you’ll be like a conductor at the front of an orchestra that’s trying to play seven different Beethoven symphonies at once. Not a pleasant experience for anyone.
1. Employee-role alignment
The first kind of alignment describes the fit between an employee and his or her role. If the individual is misaligned with the function to be performed, the mismatch will threaten the broader forms of alignment discussed later in this post.
How to build it
- Look for people who are excited by the opportunity you provide. If the role fits within the candidate’s interests and long-term career plans, you have the most important part of employee-company fit. Skills can be taught and knowledge acquired, but you’ll never be able to get someone excited about a job if they just want to pay the bills.
- Train and coach. Don’t make the common mistake of hiring based on superficial alignment (such as similar previous job experience) and then assuming the person will figure out his or her role. Setting up a formal training program for all employees will help individuals calibrate themselves to the position. Provide a continuous learning environment that encourages every employee to constantly improve his or her skills.
2. Employee-team alignment
The second level of alignment occurs between the employee and his or her immediate team. Does the employee understand the expectations of the supervisor, the objectives of the team, and how he or she supports them?
How to build it
- Make sure all employee goals integrate with team goals. Each employee should have specific goals that directly support a larger objective of the team. This is where “line of sight”—the employee’s ability to connect daily work to the broad strategy of the company—begins.
- Set parameters for decision-making. Employee–team alignment also means that people know when they have autonomy to make a decision and when they should escalate it to a supervisor. The best way to support alignment in this way is through a clear and easily accessible org chart.
3. Employee-organization alignment
The third type of alignment is the hardest to build, and it all falls on the shoulders of the CEO: the alignment between employees and the organization as a whole. This is where employees’ line of sight extends all the way from their daily reality to the highest level of company strategy.
How to build it
- Set company-wide goals that teams can support. Just as individual contributors’ goals must directly support team goals, team goals should directly support company goals (the basic idea behind several frameworks, including Drucker’s “management by objectives” and the more recent OKRs). Crucially, this is a top-down process. Once the CEO has broken long-term vision into a set of tangible company goals for the quarter, department heads can set their own supporting goals, followed by the rest of the company.
- Use a system for publishing and monitoring goals. Technology has brought many wonderful things to the business world, including several solutions for managing organizational goals. My company, Khorus, provides CEOs with a platform for beginning alignment at the very top, by establishing a handful of goals for the company and allowing teams and people to then cascade their own goals from them.
Full alignment exists only when it permeates the entire organization, when employees are aligned with their roles, their teams, and their organizations. When you build all three levels, you’re ready for high performance—even in the most unpredictable of circumstances.
Joel Trammell is the founder and CEO of Khorus, and the author of “The CEO Tightrope.” A 20-year software veteran, he is also chairman emeritus of the Austin Technology Council, the author of The CEO Tightrope, and a regular contributor to at Forbes.com and Entrepreneur.com.
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