housePerhaps the greatest strategic challenge most association/nonprofit organizational leaders face is translating strategy from the boardroom to the receptionist’s desk (or to the committee chair’s agenda). That is, extending strategy mind share throughout the organization, not just among those at the top of organizational chart.

Let’s review the traditional strategic planning methodology paradigm:


  1. At the annual (or 3-year) strategic planning retreat, the board sets broad goals and objectives that it believes are aligned with the mission/vision.
  2. A strategy document is transcribed from flip-charts plastered on the walls during the Strategic Planning retreat and distributed to the board and CEO.
  3. Staff and committees establish performance metrics that align with the objectives.
  4. The board and CEO monitor and evaluate committee/staff performance against the metrics, then adjust as necessary.

Traditional strategic planning models will say this is the “ideal,” that effective strategic execution requires cascading measures starting broadly from leadership down to the granular performance measures of committees and staff. Line-level performance measures tie upward in progressively broader ways to the “big picture” vision.

Sounds great. But there’s a flaw in the methodology because it applies a managementapproach to a leadership function.  You lead people; you manage processes.

Leadership involves influencing people, whose actions are driven by values, attitudes, and organizational culture – their mindset. The cascading measures approach is a process-focused approach measuring actions taken, not the values, emotional connection and shared understanding that drive the actions.

Without strategic mindset, doers will only do what is measured. They won’t think “out of the box” to intuitively take aligned actions that are not part of — and may even be superior to – the formal plan.

Intuitive Alignment is the Goal

Ultimately, taking strategically aligned action should be natural and innate without any prerequisite objectives and performance metrics needed. Strategic execution should be like driving home from work. You know where you live. You don’t need a map. You just know how to get there, no matter what direction you’re coming from. This is an example of intuitive alignment. Intuitive alignment should be your goal when it comes to strategic execution.

Cascading measures are for operational alignment, not strategic leadership. While such metrics do align actions in the organization around strategic objectives, they don’t encourage a strategic mindset. They measure outcomes, not the mindset driving the outcomes. So while actions may be taken in alignment with the performance measures, without strategic mindset, the actions taken outside of such measures may have no alignment with the strategy whatsoever.

A strategic mindset, vs. a prescribed checklist, is a large container with a wide array of potential means to the ends. If leadership is too prescriptive about the “how to” of executing strategies, the organization will  be limited to achieving narrow range of measured actions, which are simply leadership’s educated guesses at the best means to achieve the ends.

Often the best ideas come from the line-level staff and committee members, who are closest to the customer. Thus, keeping the “owner” mentality only at the top of the organization deprives an organization of its full strategic capacity.

Strategic Conversation Instead of Cascading Measures

So what is the strategic leadership tool that replaces the management tool of cascading measures? Conversation. Strategic conversation, specifically. Strategic conversation is the most powerful tool to ensure strategic execution, not plans and metrics. It is through conversation that values are clarified and cultural norms are developed.

But first, a caveat. Don’t confuse strategic conversation with “communicating the Strategic Plan objectives, goals and vision.” An important prerequisite, but not what we’re talking about here.

Referring to the previous example of knowing how to get home without a map, think about how you reach a state of intuitive alignment. Over time, you develop a mental map through daily repetition, occasionally trying different routes, and learning the broader context of the area you live in by exploring the neighborhood. And the key reason you take the time to learn and explore is because the place you are going is home, it’s where you live, a place to which you have an emotional connection.

The same process creates intuitive alignment in strategic execution: creating a mental map through repetition, trying various routes, developing a broader context by exploring the neighborhood, and having an emotional connection to the endpoint. And the last item on the list is the most critical and the reason why a process-focused approach is inadequate. No one feels an emotional connection to organizational vision statements, plans, performance metrics and checklists. Not even leadership.

Not even leadership? How so? It’s not the vision statement itself, but the story, the mental image, the triumphant manifestation of the outcome that the statement attempts to describe, which inspires. A couple designing a custom home isn’t excited by the blueprints, but their mental picture of what the finished home will look like, seeing themselves in it, sitting by the fireplace, swimming in the pool.

That is the essence of strategic conversation – to co-create a shared mental image of the endpoint in order to get excited about what we’re building together. This requires each person to become an active participant in the conversation. The shared vision comes from describing together what it will be like living in our new home, having a barbecue on the patio. And in an organization, in order to carry strategy from the boardroom to the reception desk, the conversation needs to involve everyone.

Taking the custom home metaphor just a little farther, the conversation continues throughout the various phases of construction. Though all are committed to the general vision, various changes to the design may occur as unidentified problems come to light after building begins. So, though the final structure may not look exactly like the original plans, because we discussed solutions together with a common understanding of what we wanted to achieve, we’ll create a better end result.

In short, when it comes to strategic execution, the difference between management and leadership is the difference between only showing our team the blueprints and never talking about how we intend our dream home to look and feel when we’re done building it. Strategic mindset and intuitive alignment among the whole team can only come from ongoing conversations that create context around the strategic objectives, not simply handing people a to-do list and following up to see if they did it.