Daniel B. Cunningham wears several hats in his role.
In his owner hat, for example, he sets the vision for The Long-Stanton Group. He communicates that to his 210 employees, but they can’t really change his direction.
However, they do have a say in how they’ll get there. So when Cunningham switches to his CEO hat, the strategic discussion is on.
“Strategic plans, to be successful, have to become part of the culture of your company,” says Cunningham, who serves as president and CEO of the metal stamping company and as president of its counterpart in China, Long-Stanton & Lee.
But for the strategy to infiltrate the culture, Cunningham knows he has to get all of his employees on board. That takes a lot of communication and open, healthy debate across the companies, which had combined sales of about $20 million in 2008.
“You’ve got to have buy-in,” he says. “Once you have buy-in, then you can turn the knob up or down.”
Smart Business spoke with Cunningham about encouraging buy-in from your employees.
Encourage disagreement. You make a safe environment during your strategic planning process. You make it safe for people to disagree. You explain upfront that the purpose of the strategic planning process is to get alignment and commitment within top leadership of the company. You explain that before you even go on the strategic planning process.
You have to lead by example. The top executive in the room must show leadership by not snapping at people and not allowing other people to act disrespectfully.
The No. 1 job of the top leader is to say, ‘Gee, Mary, what do you think about this?’ and bring people in. It’s a fine line because it’s not consensus management, but yet it’s not military, top-down, do it my way or the highway. You do a lot of circle back arounds, where [you say,] ‘Mary, I know you said purple with pink polka dots. It looks like it’s going to be green. First of all, does that make some sense to you? Can you support this?’
Generally they’ll say, ‘Yes. It’s not how I would do it, but I will do it and I won’t complain about it.’ Sometimes you have to say, ‘Well, I don’t totally agree with that, but I can see the point. I will do everything I can to make it successful.’
In extreme cases, if somebody says, ‘I just don’t see it. I’m not happy,’ they would have to part company with the company. If they don’t believe in the strategy, they’re going to be miserable and they’re not going to be successful. You have to be prepared for that.
What is not acceptable is that once people commit to something, in six months, they’ll say, ‘Well, I wanted to do it this way. That’s why it’s not working.’ You can’t do that. No, no, no, no. That’s against the rules. So we need to make people comfortable now to disagree, because once we get rolling, this is the way that we’ll depend on people to do it.
Communicate constantly for buy-in. As you’re developing a strategic plan, you’re constantly thinking: How are my employees going to react to this? Because you want employees to buy in to this, too. The communication of the strategic plan is always done by the P&L manager for a particular area of the business. As they’re developing the strategic plan, you’ll hear them say, ‘That might work in this area, but it won’t work in my area unless we do this.’ By the time we have the strategic plan done, there might even be some initial discussions with some of the employees that we think might object.
There’s communication of what the plan is, all the time knowing that buy-in is important. You spread it out over time. In other words, you don’t [say,] ‘OK, here’s our PowerPoint strategic process. I’ll send it to you in the mail.’ The strategic process takes about eight to 10 weeks every year, and in between those meetings, that’s when you’re talking to your subordinates. There needs to be a soak time because the strategic plan is dealing at the cultural level. You’ve got to bring it up and bring it up.
All of our P&L managers see all of our employees on a weekly basis. It’s already been dialogued: ‘What do you think of this? Do you think we can get these machines moved over here so we can make a sale here to improve the delivery?’ So by the time you do a formal presentation, employees are already 80 percent up to speed because they’re going to be involved in implementation.
Gauge buy-in. [Some employees] have the results and also are in line with the [strategy.] Those are your superstars. Those are the ones you just guard and you nurture. They’re high performers. [Other employees] are not quite getting results but they believe in the company. Those are very good employees and you can usually coach them to get the results.
When you have someone that believes in your [strategy], they’re excited. They’re literally bright-eyed and bushy-tailed. They come to see you and say, ‘I didn’t get the results this time, but here’s why and I’m going to really work hard. Maybe we need to tweak this a bit, but I believe we can get there.’ It’s your responsibility now, but I might suggest you work on this. Then, of course, measure it.
[Other employees] are not getting results and they don’t believe in your company. Those are going to have to say bye-bye. That’s usually pretty clear. Usually they’re pretty sour people. It’s the ones that kind of hang away from everybody else. It’s not just being unsocial; it’s more maybe a snappy, caustic remark. There’s no sense of working together.
How to reach: The Long-Stanton Group, (513) 849-3959 or www.longstanton.com