How to align teams on a behavioral strategy?

This is a story of how we worked with a non-integrated midsize family business that was transformed into an international group. In this post, you’ll learn about:

- The usual steps of a transformation process considering people challenges

- Illustrations of behavioral and emotional aspects to manage at the top level

- Typical necessary adjustments of the behavioral strategy during the journey

- Ways to increase the strategic agility of a leadership team

- A concrete application of each quadrant of the PI Strategy Framework

Reinforcing circle between behavioral strategy and business strategy
Reinforcing circle between behavioral strategy and business strategy

When good enough is no longer enough

The success of a business transformation depends a lot on alignment of the leaders. That requires a high level of awareness by considering behavioral and emotional aspects, making constant efforts to reach consensus at the top level, and managing consciously each step to maintain the momentum. As an illustration, we would like to tell the story of a family business transformed into an integrated international group, that Talentware was brought on to help. At the starting point of the project, it was a midsize enterprise, built by dozens of small acquisitions over 20 years, and managed by a President, a Chief Executive Officer and support functions. The parent company oversaw general management, finance, legal, human resources, and information technology. In the field, we found a collection of small companies that were led by entrepreneurial bosses, had different brands, addressed their local markets through individual approaches. The management style was focused on action with pragmatism, intuition, hard work. Things could have continued that way for a very long time, if the CEO hadn’t thought much more could be done by leveraging untapped potential.

A behavioral approach to strategy

We went through four major steps to make this fundamental transformation in five years: Reflection, Preparation, Acceleration, Regulation. We will see that each one of them demanded switches in terms of attitude, mindset and even culture. At a very fast pace. For a company that was more experienced with clever acquisitions and operational management, than with transformation processes. From the first meeting, the CEO bought into our baseline at Talentware: “People at the core of the strategy”. We proposed to complement the business strategy process based on classical economics thinking (market forces, product positioning, channel advantages…), with a behavioral strategy approach that considers strategic intent viewed through a people lens. The company’s business strategy would be translated into people terms to define the behavioral strategy, which would serve as a feedback loop to adjust the business strategy. The challenge for the teams would be to increase their agility to pass each hurdle, as they would have to alternate between external and internal, between flexibility and structure, during the journey.

The PI Behavioral Strategy Framework
The PI Behavioral Strategy Framework

In this context, the PI Behavioral Strategy Framework, based on four types of behavioral strategy, was extremely powerful in designing and sharing priorities. For external orientation, the Exploring quadrant corresponds to pursuing a broad range of new opportunities and innovations, whereas the Producing quadrant is about focusing on customers and building a strong reputation. For internal orientation, the Cultivating quadrant corresponds to developing employees and strengthening team cohesion, whereas the Stabilizing quadrant is about engineering efficient processes and finely tuned deliverables. On the matrix, the desired strategy is defined with the purple color and the team’s profiles with the blue color. Visualizing the predominant behavioral strategy at each step enabled agreement on the big priorities. Aligning everybody on it provided a great pulling force.

Reflection to take a conscious look on what is at stake

 Behavioral strategy

Forming a leadership team for a reflective journey was the top priority. The CEO selected talented managers ready to conduct radical changes. According to their PI behavioral profiles, their natural drives mapped to the Exploring and Producing quadrants. These nine people constituted what we call a “Pathfinding team”. As coaches, we facilitated several retreats far from the office to open mind, heart and will. We started with a twofold questioning in order to create a constructive tension. On the one hand, we probed into recurring frustrations with questions such as: What limits you the most at this moment? What’s blocking you from exploring new territories? What areas of interest would you like to develop much more? On the other hand, we clarified deep aspirations with stimulations such as: Have you thought about your strong desire for the future? Have you experimented with things better aligned with your dreams? How could you really fulfill your personal and professional life? A word to describe Pathfinding teams is relentless. Members tend to be goal-oriented and competitive. The participants were not used to doing this sort of introspective exercise that led to share their feelings, doubts, hopes, and blind spots with each other. They progressively learned more about themselves and their colleagues from new viewpoints, strengthening their mutual trust.

We also encouraged authentic conversations about why they sought to change a model that had worked for so long. They defined a project charter that would serve as a beacon all along the journey. We applied a mix of consulting and coaching methods to facilitate this phase. On the business side, they formalized guidelines such as “having a sustainable impact, implementing new practices”, and agreed on a common vision based on “better leveraging assets, reshaping the market”. On the people side, they realized that they shared the same motivations such as “learning again, growing by growing others”, and reached a consensus that the group dynamics would be grounded on “leaving the comfort zone, living a human adventure”. All these principles gave them the urge to do the job. We took memorable pictures to save this moment of truth. They were ready to move forward.

Preparation despite the irresistible desire to jump immediately

Behavioral strategy

The second step was about structuring the company to build the foundations of the future growth. This required forcing the leadership team to bend against their natural behavioral drives. It’s not easy at all for a Pathfinding team to decide to invest time and efforts in the Stabilizing quadrant, which is all about efficiency and fine-tuning. Various concrete actions were launched, such as merger of activities in business units, identification of a second line of managers, implementation of key indicators, shift of mindset as a group, fix of recurring local problems.

The new formal organization and governance were considered as a revolution of the management style. Everything was articulated around the mantra “one group, one team, one brand”. Having initially almost all the local bosses as direct reports, the CEO nominated four directors to manage the business, in order to get more time and energy to lead the transformation. The managers in charge of the support functions were promoted as chief finance officer, chief talent officer and chief information officer to strengthen their power of action. A steering committee and an executive committee were created. All these disruptive actions triggered a storm. More fear than enthusiasm came from everywhere. Several key people were very disappointed by these changes and gave signs of disengagement. It was therefore urgent to build a coalition of mobilizers to bring and implement new insights. By crossing their commitment to the emerging future and their energy ready to be deployed, we classified people into four main clusters: Observers, Talkers, Blockers, Mobilizers.

It is interesting to point out that the PI Behavioral Assessment helped us decode whether their position was because of their behavioral profiles (cautious vs risk-taker, proactive vs reactive), or because of the nature of the change itself (agreement vs disagreement with the new vision). This analysis guided us to select and empower the first 50 change agents among employees. We would regularly update this mapping to follow the mental model evolution and adjust our actions to get as many people on board as we could. Here, we are addressing the notion of “leadership at every level”, which is a key element in our Talent Optimization approach. It’s essential to have people throughout the organization who can help implement a change, especially if the leadership team is not behaviorally aligned with the type of strategy, as was the case at this Preparation step.

Magical moments in the acceleration

Behavioral strategy

The strategic acceleration, this time perfectly aligned with the natural behavioral drives of the leadership team, was impressive. On the Producing type of strategy, priorities were around putting more pressure on the field, increasing the pace of local acquisitions, offering a broad portfolio of services, attracting talents from competitors. For the Exploring type of strategy, they ventured into brand new territories such as targeting very large accounts, providing end-to-end solutions, building a game-changing digital platform, daring to make international acquisitions. By pushing altogether “big + speed + unknown”, everything was suddenly much more complex to manage. They needed to implement a new way of thinking to be able to solve problems and push the boundaries. As trainers, we were glad to teach them how to move from the “intuitive fast” to the “analytical slow”. A ritual of five questions were stuck on the walls: "What is? What if? What wows? What works? What’s unthinkable?". In short, we were trying to limit their natural impulse to jump to the conclusion.

They also fostered more collective approaches. Multiple workshops were organized to challenge the status quo and imagine alternative options. They promoted unscheduled exchanges across the silos to get unexpected solutions, and encouraged employees to share failures as a proof of deep transformations in progress, rather than highlighting only successes. There were magical moments when virtuous circles took place. On the business side: great projects then brand visibility then deal flow then awards won. On the people side: powerful collaboration then growing skills then talent attraction then high engagement. Everybody thought that there were no limits.

Group cohesion strained by the necessary regulation

Behavioral strategy

After the exciting Acceleration period, a regulation became crucial because “too much too fast”. The company had achieved very strong growth, far beyond expectations. In five years, they tripled the revenue done in 20 years. But they received alarming feedback on the employee engagement surveys they administered, like “Lost, tension, exhausted, out of control, burnout, fatigue, stressful, disorder, sleepless, suffering, unhappy, resignations, failure, sickness”. With our long experience in Talent Optimization, we know that Producing and Exploring are types of strategy that do not focus a lot on employees’wellbeing, as leaders emphasize external orientation. Despite our warnings, this unstoppable “Pathfinding team” kept running. And they took a toll by having pushed too much the limits. Knowing that there is a high probability that this scenario could happen, we always try to encourage the proactive leaders to plan a period to throttle back in their transformation plan. When you talk about Acceleration, you need to think about Regulation too.

On the business side, we assisted in the polarization of the leadership team on the best way to manage the growth crisis through. Restraining forces urged them to slow down, because of profitability problems, unhappy clients, tired teams, decreased engagement, key people leaving. Meanwhile, driving forces argued they should keep going, because of revenue growth, a lot of opportunities, acquisitions pipeline, talent pipeline, exciting success. The group faced two potential directions that were fundamentally at odds with each other. To move forward, they absolutely needed to work on the people side of the business. We facilitated individual and collective coaching to increase their conscious leadership capacity. To overcome this conflictual period, they needed to address touchy topics like stepping back, mitigating disastrous tensions, reducing fears, and respecting burnout, while also rebuilding mutual trust, listening to others’scenarios, accepting plan amendments, and telling employees the truth. The goal was to enter a positive loop through recognition and dialogue at individual level (self-awareness and personal mastery) and at the collective level (emotional connection and mutual learning).

They reached a consensus to balance priorities against their proactive natural profiles. The PI Behavioral Strategy Framework was again very helpful to visualize the new goals. The team decided to maintain the Producing type of strategy with a lower level of pressure, and completely stop the Exploring type which was the root cause of the turbulence. But the most surprising decision was the radical shift to the Cultivating quadrant, with initiatives such as a retention program, mindfulness sessions (unbelievable when you saw the personalities around the table), practicing feedback, more teambuilding, better communication, employee experience. We knew that choosing opposite strategy types was a very difficult place for the company to be in. The emphasis on Producing and Cultivating at the same time is paradoxical and very difficult to pull off. For example, it’s hard to create a culture of support and cohesion while also stressing individual competition and achieving results above all else. Given that the leadership team was not behaviorally aligned to Cultivating quadrant, it had required a strong level of awareness for all of them to avoid that the Producing culture ultimately remained the sole focus.

Alignment and engagement to lead the shifts

The company moved through different behavioral strategy positions over time, and this meant everyone needed to exhibit certain behaviors that mapped to each quadrant. Yet, the leadership team configuration stayed static throughout. Ultimately, they succeeded in their transformation because the senior leaders developed agile capabilities, that allowed them to succeed in each strategy type, by stretching beyond their comfort zone.

The company consciously managed the process, through the major steps Reflection, Preparation, Acceleration and Regulation, with a constant concern for keeping people aligned and engaged. Many efforts were made to maintain the team’s alignment on the evolving priorities. We also periodically assessed employee emotional engagement to monitor the critical phases and stay in tune with the field. In completing this project, we led the company through two aptitudes of talent optimization: Design and Diagnose. They are determinant components of a successful business transformation.

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