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Leading in a Time of Change

By Melissa J. Anderson

How can leaders motivate their workforces to achieve strategic objectives during times of extreme upheaval? That’s one issue Virginia Rometty, Chairman and CEO of IBM, approached during her discussion with Jessi Hempel at the recent Most Powerful Women Conference.

She explained that, particularly in the technology industry, but indeed for most industries, we are working in a state of constant change and global uncertainty. For a global company like IBM, and most Fortune 500 firms, it is critical that employees latch onto their leader’s strategic vision and follow through on achieving it. But in an environment where change occurs so frequently resulting in rapid shifts of business strategy, how can employees understand what they are to achieve?

Rometty laid out her approach as the notion of “strategic belief.” She explained, “I actually think strategic belief could end up being more important than strategic planning in this day and age about how do you keep the long view sort of in your mind.”

What is strategic belief and how do leaders leverage it? She described it as directional arcs that unite a workforce. “People really do want to work for a higher purpose in addition to what they do every day,” she said.

Directional Arcs

According to Rometty, developing strategic belief can be an effective method for moving a company forward toward a long-term goal. She explained:

“Sort of in a nutshell, you know, clients would often say to me, ‘What’s your strategy?’  And I would say, ‘Ask me what I believe first, that’s a way more enduring answer.’  And in the world you and I live in now where everything’s changing so quickly, can’t predict everything, and – and this is probably the most important ‘and’ – and most of us have workforces that are very bright, very intelligent, want to be engaged in a broad way. This [is the ]idea of a strategic belief, saying if you can agree amongst the firm for the future, some really big arcs of change, I would call them.”

Rometty believes that employee buy-in on these arcs of change is what makes strategic belief effective. “And if you can align everyone around a couple of those, it’s a very, I think, energizing and inclusive way to create a long-term strategy without having to worry that you’ve exactly called every specific point right here.  But sort of these directional arcs.”

She added, “And that’s probably one of the biggest things I think all of us as a team have learned over this year about how do you keep reinventing, right?  And don’t take for granted where you’re at, but keep kind of a long-term view is that thought.”

Employee Engagement

Rometty also said she believes it’s important for employees to champion strategic belief as well. At a company of 400,000 people, she explained, social business platforms can help spread ideas and generate buy-in for what works around specific directional arcs.

“I think this is about sort of the future of most companies, this idea of you’re going to get some of your best ideas from inside, inclusion, everybody sort of aligning, giving input, arguing with each other, and you do coalesce.  It doesn’t mean you sort of let every flower bloom and things go wild, they’re channeled down certain directions.

“So one is how do you keep people vested in that and that they really feel like they have some input?  So we have used within IBM social business in our way, and it has been a wonderful way to integrate people and have them both have a say, a debate, and an alignment across these waves. And IBM’ers have participated in hundreds of thousands in this kind of idea and are used to it.”

IBM uses its own platform for facilitating social communication among its workforce, and this also helps people become more engaged with the business’ strategy. It also helps them develop clarity around their higher purpose.

That higher purpose, she says, is what drives employee engagement – understanding the impact of one’s ideas and being able to see how they fit in the directional arc of the company’s strategic belief.

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