“This is the year I’m going to finally ________.” 

I’d wager this is the most common phrase uttered at this time of year. And yet, as we all know by now – either from personal experience or the inevitable news stories on the subject – most resolutions ultimately fail. And the reason for that? Most people making their resolutions overlook the necessity of creating an actual plan for carrying out the actions needed to achieve the resolution.

From a leadership perspective, as we flip our calendars over to January, and face another year of pandemic chaos and other various obstacles in our path, it’s useful to think of our ambitious strategies for the coming year as resolutions of a sort…meaning we need to have the right plans in place to carry them through – especially as pertaining to our people.

Strategy is just an idea until it’s executed 

Strategy is nothing without execution. And the execution of strategy requires informed, energised, aligned, and enthusiastic people – and lots of them.

“Culture eats strategy for breakfast,” management guru Peter Drucker once famously said. And he’s right. Culture creates guardrails that indicate the correct path forward for the organisation. A healthy culture both improves and speeds decision-making, rewards and amplifies the behaviours the organisation values most, is invaluable to employee retention, and ultimately becomes a distinct competitive advantage.

If improving employee retention and achieving desired staffing levels are central to your goals for the year, creating a distinct plan to improve organisational morale and culture is necessary if you hope to achieve those goals.

How to create a plan for your employees

Culture does not happen organically. It starts from the top, and is shaped by the behaviours the organisation consistently rewards and punishes. Ensuring leaders throughout the organisation are aligned is one of the most important elements of cultural health.

To use a well-known analogy at this time of year, it’s not unlike weight loss.  You can either continue telling yourself you’re going to get fitter every time you notice your clothing is uncomfortably tight, or you can face the hard truth and get on the scale, clean out the pantry of junk food and focus on developing the habit of exercising.

Similarly, developing a plan to strengthen culture, improve morale and increase employee retention starts with getting to the truth, and then using that information to make focused and strategic, and meaningful improvements.

Here’s my advice for developing a plan for your team:

  1. Understand, and then embrace, empathetic leadership. Empathy is easily defined, but it’s terribly misunderstood: it simply means one has the ability to understand and share the feelings of another person. From a leadership perspective, however, the effects of empathy are both more complex and profound: it arms leaders with strategic understanding that enables better and more effective decision-making. There’s a reason why this kind of understanding is one of Stephen Covey’s ‘7 Habits of Highly Effective People.’ “Seek first to understand, and then be understood,” he advises in Habit 5.
  2. Gain an understanding of your people. How do they feel about the company, their jobs, and the future? Do they have the support, tools, and information they need to do their best work? Or are they hampered by obstacles you can’t see? Do they feel they are valued and treated fairly? How likely are they to leave? There are many ways to gather this data, and the view it provides senior leaders is invaluable. An employee survey is the easiest and swiftest way to get a holistic view of the organisation, especially if it’s also fully anonymous and invites your people to provide structured feedback. HR data, skip-level meetings, and small-group round-table meetings can also be useful ways to put your finger on the true pulse of the organisation.
  3. Act upon the findings, communicate, and re-assess. Once you’ve assessed the data and drawn your conclusions, the next step is to act upon the findings and your newfound understanding of the organisation and people. Tell your team what you’ve learned, and share with them the plans for action.  Follow through on those actions, and keep your team informed of progress. Bear in mind that incremental improvements quickly add up to meaningful change your people will appreciate.

One important note: in my experience, I have learned that employee feedback invariably presents one of two opportunities: either an opportunity to correct a misunderstanding or an opportunity to acknowledge a genuine issue. As you peruse your collected feedback, notice if there are patterns to misunderstandings, as they can point to opportunities to improve communication. And, of course, pay attention to patterns in genuine issues as well.  Clusters of problems or surprises can indicate problems within groups or departments that need leadership attention.

Just as improving one’s fitness involves standing on the scale, creating a culture that is aligned, engaged, and ready to carry the strategic plan forward requires starting with the truth in hand. However, in both cases, truth is only valuable if put to use.  In the case of strategic planning, the truth of what the workforce is thinking and feeling can be the valuable basis upon which leaders build the decisions about their people. Empathetic leaders use their understanding of their employees’ various truths to create work environments that support their organisation’s strategy – including the healthy and aligned culture necessary for the successful execution of the plans and achievement of the goals.