This article first appeared in Executive Support Magazine on the 25th of May 2021.
Dan Hadley covers 4 key functions Support Professionals can be a part of to enhance the strategic success
BY DAN HADLEY on APRIL 25, 2021– LEADERSHIP
“Strategy” tends to hold a certain connotation within private enterprise. A function room filled with executives, senior managers, advisors and potentially high-end investors. Closed doors in many instances, potentially days of no communication from leadership and employees waiting nervously or excitedly for the future direction to roll out. Strategy represents a variety of things to all levels in organization. Smaller, boutique firms may develop their strategy in one day with just 2 people whilst locked away in a hotel room to avoid distraction.
Multinational corporations (MNCs) may go so far as to hold retreats at resorts of an entire week, with all high-level leaders and their support staff. Devoted solely to developing, what will be a critical plan for the future of the organization. From a consultant’s point of view, strategy “making” is an enjoyable, creative process but one that, in and of itself, will bring no success without proper implementation and action. Corporate leadership has often been accused of developing fancy strategies, plans and schedules for change without action to back it up.
Sales, business development and marketing are fundamental parts of an organization’s strategy. Nothing happens, until somebody sells something. All sales rest in the representation of a brand offering a product or service. Relationships with clients and customers are vital, particularly in a global market with access to instant comparable information in ensuring informed decisions. Every opportunity to positively influence the experience and interaction with the client should be taken. This is not necessarily a responsibility exclusive to just sales and marketing staff though with opportunities for brand representation available to other levels.
Although leaders and managers at various level may be given implementation actions towards all avenues of a new strategy, there are fundamental, yet often understated avenues of success that can be contingent upon executive support staff. Understanding these opportunities means Executive Support staff are more empowered, dynamic, and proactively engaging in the success of an organization. 4 Key avenues stand out for such professionals which we discuss herein.
Dissemination (downstream communication)
Emails, memos, notice boards and phone calls are just the most basic form of intra-organizational communication. Real value in conveying a message rests in the ability to ensure the message is accurately championed from person to person. True commitment for a cause can be undermined or enhanced by the level of “personal buy-in” workers in an organization make. Support staff are often placed in the position, whether they know it or not, of being a personal conduit between senior management and those on the front line as it were.
Support staff are also only one step removed from the strategy through quiet association with management and are therefore in a unique position to influence the success of the future strategic direction to a high degree. These opportunities for success come through the face-to-face interactions that key support staff have with frontline management, workers, and other internal stakeholders.
Communication becomes particularly important during periods of change. In the absence of information, people tend to assume the worst. Change, even branded as being positive, may be taken negatively by many. Thus, a more granular and down to earth representation of the overall strategic direction and changes in the organization from co-workers can lead to a greater buy in and speed of change. Ground level communication becomes a fundamental part of strategic success.
Executive support staff hold a unique position in influencing the roll out of change, strategy, and new initiatives. In this regard, Executive Support professionals can become champions of the Company’s strategic direction, particular in larger organizations where management may be logistically removed from much interaction with workers across differing sites or divisions.
Translation (condensing and representing upstream)
The funnel of information runs both ways, or at least it should. Those organizations that suffer from one way, top-down only communication are classified as autocratic-undynamic originations in terms of culture by Management Consultants. To be successful, there needs to be a measure of communication and consultation from workers up to senior leadership with genuine consideration. This is such an important element that it is even covered in ISO 9001:2015 the International Standard for Quality Management Systems.
Even drier, more formal styles of management and leadership focused on compliance are seeing the enormous benefits of effective communication with workers and side by side consultation. The benefits of such communication include greater levels of reality check with the front line of the business, a greater sense of connectivity between senior management, workers and even consumers as well as a greater level of worker retention over the long term. Most larger companies have safety committees comprising of employees at all levels, divisional reps that may bring information up the chain and even social club committees or representatives to create a greater level of workplace enjoyment. But where does the Executive Support professional fit into this?
In the same way the Executive Support professional may keep their ear to the sky (towards management), a unique opportunity exists to keep an ear to the ground (workers at all levels). Such professionals, whether they know it or not, are the vital link to not just portray information downstream but also relay it back upstream. Executives often suffer from a lack of time and the importance of condensing and translating information on mass effectively cannot be understated.
Executives may be shocked to find that their support professionals receive more honest, blunt, and useful information than they may otherwise receive if they attempt to gain it in person themselves. This of course depends on the individuals in the equation but in many instances, the Executive Support professional may be seen as more relatable and may have more access to workers are different levels and across different divisions. There may also be the opportunity for such professionals to compare and contrast notes across different departments and divisions within the organization. This may provide an informal level of aggregate data on what workers think, feel, need, want and know about the organization. Conveying this succinctly to executives may add tremendous value in terms of strategic planning and management.
Close range brand enhancement
In terms of sales, marketing and business development strategy, there are types of opportunities or “leads” that are considered better than others. This is largely due to the fact that certain leads “close” or, in other words, come to a point-of-sale completion more often than others. At the top of the scale is the customer or client that is absolutely desperate for your Company’s product or service. They are chasing you, demand exceeds supply and this scenario is considered the greatest position to be in.
At the other end of the scale, the Company providing the good or service holds the factor of desperation. It may be represented by cold calling on mass, unannounced marketing, or clients who holds little to no interest. Supply is much higher than demand in this instance, often with many alternatives in the market. This is a difficult form of “brand representation” for a business development team.
Between these two opposite ends of the scale are a variety of other opportunities. The science of business development comes down to the representation of a goods and services to generate demand. If no-one knows a product or service exists they will never find and never acquire. Therefore marketing, sales and business development teams exist.
Towards the higher end of our scale, are referrals or representations by existing or other clients. Happy, satisfied customers convey a great message to the market. In a very similar way, non-sales-based employees of companies can have the same effect. This even includes ex-employees. The market can and does judge a company on a variety of factors, not just its product and service offering.
Clients are not surprised that sales agents, sales reps and marketing presenters will promote their company and brand as the best thing since sliced bread. That is their job! A positive, clear message of positivity, unification, and strong direction from a less biased party in a more casual setting, may have a greater impact than most realize.
Herein lies the potential for additional brand representation simply by cultivating a dynamic culture that employees believe in. Furthermore, Executive Support staff having softer, less marketing-based interactions with clients can serve a greater purpose. Every interaction adds up to contribute to the greater client experience. This can be as simple as Executive Support professional accompanying senior leaders to presentations or more casually over lunch when the presentation has been paused. How such professionals present themselves in terms of a balance of authenticity and professionalism may mean the difference between a signed deal and a no-go.
Granular implementation of management system change
Companies evolve and change over time. In general, the larger the Company, the slower the change or evolution takes to roll out and deliver. This is due to the larger logistical scope inherent with National or even Multinational Corporations (MNCs). Change management professionals also recognize that, in general, larger organizations, like MNCs, are more difficult to evolve through concerted efforts due to the often, though not universal, gulf between executive management and cold face level employees.
Larger organizations rely on more formalized management systems to assist in control, management and ensuring consistency in output. The aim is to provide resources that work in conjunction with strong leadership and directions at all levels to ensure an experience for workers that is dynamic, supported, and consistent. This ultimately leads to a consistent and quality production of goods or provision of services to clients and customers. In tangible terms, the management system may consist of an extensive library of documentation or resources to provide this level of control and support.
Even the best planned management system implemented today, will require change and evolution tomorrow. Work instructions, procedures and other resources throughout the organization have an intended purpose. This is subtly yet drastically more important than the face value for any one procedure or resource. Alone, one work instruction may represent how a Company needs one granular process performed. On a more macro scale, a management system is far more philosophical in nature and represents an intended direction and purpose consistent with the themes and culture of the organization. These themes and directions come from executive leadership.
The practical role out, enhancement and change of the management system is often spear headed by executives or external change management professionals. The success rests in the roll out and use of the management system though and in this instance, Executive Support staff can influence their speed of change, effectiveness of use and return on investment.
As a vital link between Executive Leadership and the rest of the organization, such professionals can respond to ground level resistance change and management system evolution with something as simple as “I know change can be difficult, but this is all part of a plan to achieve…”. Such granular, ground level conversations can positively impact the use of a Management System and its changes over time. Conversely, roadblocks in the path of the management System may be represented by Executive Support staff to leadership. When workers also see that Executive Management and their Support staff utilize the system genuinely, they are more likely to do so themselves.
Executive Support professionals are in a unique position to influence organizational culture in line with strategic direction. Conversations, both upstream and downstream, are more powerful than memos and group emails. The actions that flow from the top down to the bottom can also be highly influenced in the same way. Such professionals can keep an ear to the ground whilst keeping an ear to the sky.
It’s important to note that management does not necessarily mean leadership. True leadership is represented not by pointing the finger and directing but by taking a workforce, arm in arm, and driving the direction with them. The old saying that Leaders fight in the trenches whilst Managers sit on the hill is often very true.
Truer still is the statement that one does not need to be a Manager to be a Leader. With all of this in mind, Executive support professionals can become (and often are) leaders in their organization. The vital position of Executive Support staff leaves such professionals with one or two questions. The first is: are you a Leader contributing to the strategic future of your organization? The second is: if you are not a leader in your role now, when will you become one….?
About the author: Dan Hadley (MBA, BCOMM, MIMC, IML) is a Management Consultant and Economist based in Adelaide, South Australia. His services include strategic advisory services, risk management and consultation in Quality, Safety and Environmental Management systems as well as economic consultation.