How to Get Your People Working on the Big Rocks

And stop sifting through gravel!

“We’ve got big goals to accomplish, yet I keep finding people working on all these little projects that don’t really matter.”

This was the sentiment of one CEO I spoke to last week who is already feeling the pressure of meeting this year’s goals.

People spend time on less critical work for lots of reasons. They don’t get it. They don’t agree (and may be passive aggressive in ignoring you.) They are good at doing some things and are a bit afraid of the new assignment. Their boss or other leader keeps throwing tasks over the wall. Or they just don’t really know what the focus is, how important it is and how they need to play a role.

In working with senior leaders and teams on building and growing thriving organizations, we’ve found a few critical levers you must pull to align and engage people around these, “big rocks.” No surprise, this starts with your leadership team. If your leaders aren’t fully aligned on and committed to the goals and to one another, you will spend your time dealing with renegades running personal agendas and functional silos. If you incorporate these 10 practices, you will exponentially increase alignment and success, and will have a lot more fun doing it.

  1. Get Crystal Clear. Be as clear as the priciest diamond you can find (to continue the rock metaphor – and conflict-free of course). Clearly define the most important goals. Describe what needs to happen to achieve these goals. Take the high-level goal into your larger initiatives or milestones. Once you’ve clarified, clarify again, and again, and again.
  2. Align Leaders on the Rocks. Telling them isn’t enough. Every leader must be clear on the priorities. You also need to uncover their perspectives on what will get in the way and what else they plan to continue to work on that may not directly deliver on one of the big rocks. Know the obstacles and have a plan to address these.
  3. Align Leaders as a Team. Every leader needs to understand their own style, motivations, and concerns and those of others on the team. And they need to view the leadership team (not their functional group) as their “first team.” Work together to establish the rules of the road to achieve the goals together and become a high-performance team.
  4. Shape the Culture as You Go. Even if you didn’t put a people and culture component to your strategic plan (and you really must), your culture can make or break your success. Engage people early and often to rally around important goals and emerge as a thriving culture. What needs to change for us to succeed? How are we unintentionally rewarding other behaviors? What could the unintended consequences be if we go about this in the wrong way? (You’ve seen this movie before-right?)
  5. Show the Line of Sight. Every person in your organization should have a “line of sight” between their work and at least one of these big rocks. Understanding how one’s work matters helps drive motivation. Those closest to the work, clients or patients know what’s working and what’s quite honestly ridiculous. Clarify what’s most important. Ask them for ideas and empower them to think and act.
  6. Fix the Talent Gaps. What’s getting in the way? Functional silos? Turnover? Can’t find people? Incentivizing the wrong behaviors? Align people and teams across functions to get things done. Quickly assess your people practices for strategic misalignment and address those most critical to achieving your goals.
  7. Minimize the Gravel. In Steven Covey’s big rocks first strategy, he mentions adding big rocks first, then adding gravel, sand, and water. Yet, if you completely fill the bucket, there’s no space to breathe, let alone think, recharge, connect, and reflect. Say no to or delay less important projects and find ways for greater efficiencies to allow people more time to focus on big rocks while not filling up the entire vessel.
  8. Drive Responsibility and Accountability. Be clear from the start on who is responsible for what. Insist that your leaders to do the same as they cascade work and collaborate across functions. Meet with leaders 1:1 and as a team regularly to ensure clarity (yes, again), to uncover gaps and obstacles, and to hold them accountable for their commitments.
  9. Celebrate the Big and Small Wins. Celebrating the small wins brings the momentum needed to achieve the bigger goals. Encourage people to hit above their weight class and take risks. Appreciate acts of courage and learn from failures. Have some fun and appreciate the work your people are doing!
  10. Become a better organization. The good news is that following these practices (even if less than perfectly executed) will bring you a stronger leadership team, culture, and business. You’ll build muscle along the way as you pick up and break down those big rocks.

In my three decades of working with leaders and as a leader, I’ve found that the greatest threat to any organization’s success is a lack of alignment. I firmly believe that a leader’s primary responsibility is to create an environment where others can thrive. Embracing these practices will set you on a path to an aligned, thriving organization. If you are serious about making this happen, then let’s talk. An exploratory conversation will bring possibilities into laser focus.

Here are some related resources you may be interested in:

Leadership Team Alignment Requires this Foundational Element

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Align Leaders and Strategy to Navigate Challenging Times

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The New Normal: Aligning Remote Work Trends with Your Business