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Job 1 for Leaders: Aligning Rhetoric to Reality

By Dr. Albert A. Vicere

Scan typical corporate mission statements and you'll note that most companies aspire to be some combination of innovative, customer-driven, market-leading, employee-focused, performance-oriented, and of course, profitable. Although admirable, most leaders would agree that living up to those traits consistently over time is incredibly demanding and extremely difficult. That is not to challenge corporate aspirations, but simply to make an obvious observation: declaring aspirations is much easier than actually achieving them.

My research, coupled with my years of experience as a consultant, has convinced me that the key to resolving this perplexing challenge is rooted in the ability of leaders to reconcile the rhetoric of corporate aspirations with the reality of corporate operating environments. Organizations need aspirations, and as Jim Collins reminded us in his book Built to Last1, people seek the exuberance of being part of an organization with Big Hairy Audacious Goals. But if the organization's declared purpose and aspirations are out of synch with its operating environment, if people within the organization experience a culture that is very different from its stated purpose and aspirations, the organization is headed for disaster.

That's because, regardless of the strategy statement or CEO speeches, the way an organization's leaders actually behave, coupled with the things they ultimately measure and reward, combine to shape employee thinking and behavior across the organization. In effect, they shape what I call "organizational DNA."

Through careful research and discussions with thousands of leaders and managers worldwide, I have built a framework for organizational DNA, the Direction and Alignment (DNA)® Model [Figure 1]. The model is based on a visual metaphor, the DNA double helix. The biological double helix is comprised of a backbone—the two intertwining strands that frame genetic character. These strands are connected by a four-letter code comprising the instructions for a person's genetic profile. Each letter of the code is comprised of essential chemical elements. Those elements combine into sets of base pairs within which one's genetic code resides.

Figure 1: The Direction and Alignment (DNA)® Model

Figure 1

In the Direction and Alignment (DNA) Model®, the backbone of organizational DNA is comprised of two intertwining strands—an organization's roots or its history and operating capabilities, and its wings or its ability to change and innovate. Those two strands are connected by a three letter code—SLC, the first letters in the words strategy, leadership, and culture. Each letter of an organization's genetic code is comprised of three essential elements. Strategy is comprised of perspectives toward innovation, talent, and infrastructure. Leadership is comprised of perspectives toward hindsight, insight, and foresight. Culture is comprised of perspectives toward aspiration, accountability, and initiative. As indicated in Figure 1, each of these nine essential elements can be defined by a set of "base pairs" or essential viewpoints held by leaders that guide their interpretation of organizational strategy, leadership, and culture.

The DNA Model®, as described above, has been operationalized in a survey instrument, the Strategy, Leadership, Culture Questionnaire (SLCQ)®. Respondents indicate their perceptions of their organization with regard to each set of base pairs. The data generated by the SLCQ® reveal the way members think about strategy, leadership, and culture and the potential impact those perceptions have on member behavior, organizational performance, and strategy execution.

The SLCQ® has been used by a variety of major organizations and in a number of settings over the past six years, resulting in a database of nearly 12,000 respondents representing all levels of organizations, though the vast majority are in middle- through senior-level leadership positions. An analysis of the database paints a compelling picture of the challenge faced by leaders as they attempt to align their organizations with a desired future state.

Despite the fact that the economic environment has had its ups and downs over the period that data have been collected, an analysis of the overall database generated a "typical" or average profile of an organization that has remained consistent over time, despite economic fluctuations and changing business conditions.

In terms of strategy, respondents indicate that their organizations are followers/perfecters slow to develop new ideas or approaches to business, staffed by take-charge people complemented by technical experts, who are trying to work together but feel like they are operating in silos.

In terms of culture, they indicate that their organizations are prospecting for and reacting to opportunities, in order to generate improvements, for the purpose of extracting as much return as possible from their current asset base.

In terms of leadership, they indicate a passion for their organization and feel challenged by their jobs. However, although a majority feel energized by their work situation, over 30 percent indicate that the organization's reward system is not tied to performance and that there is little certainty about pathways for advancement in the organization.

It is worth repeating that this overall profile emerged early and has remained consistent over the years that we have collected data. Individual organizations can vary dramatically from the norm, but the norm itself has remained consistent. Respondents indicate that the "typical" organization is exactly as described above.

The vast majority of respondents to the SLCQ® are from large, established companies. As those companies have grown and become successful, their culture, as defined by focus, metrics, and rewards, has evolved from the creation of new products, services, and business models to a focus on maintaining share and margins and driving profits. The typical organization is profiled as having limited openness to new ideas and making limited effort to divine new opportunities for growth and development.

If that's the case, how likely is it that a new strategy statement, even one rolled out with town meetings, speeches, and training programs, is really going to make an impact on the way respondents think and behave on their job? It's a safe bet that respondents will keep working as they always have until leaders not only generate the rhetoric of a change in focus and emphasis, but also take steps to align that rhetoric with the reality of the operating environment by changing the mental models of organizational members. And they do that by changing metrics, adjusting rewards, modeling new behaviors, and demonstrating that the organization actually means what it is saying.

Like many key elements of leadership and strategy, it may seem like common sense that to achieve organizational performance and longevity, leaders must align the rhetoric of an organization to the reality of its operating environment. Yet, my research and experience suggest that for most organizations, this connection is fleeting at best. Data from an SLCQ® analysis make rhetoric-reality gaps clear, and therefore addressable.


1 Collins, J. and Porras, J. (2004). Built to Last: Successful Habits of Visionary Companies. New York: HarperBusiness. 

Dr. Albert A. Vicere is Professor of Strategic Leadership at Penn State and President of Vicere Associates Inc.  His books include Leadership by Design (Harvard Business School Press) and The Many Facets of Leadership (FT Prentice-Hall). Contact Al.



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