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strategy and business
 / Winter 2013 / Issue 73(originally published by Booz & Company)


Are You Your Employees’ Worst Enemy?

Consider again the BP example, in which people at all levels of the organization struggled to make sense of two conflicting imperatives. Assumptions and competing objectives discounted the safety ethic in favor of making the numbers.

On the flip side, look at Apple. In Steve Jobs’s second term as CEO, Apple benefited hugely from his abundant clarity with respect to design, form, and functionality. During Jobs’s absence, the company had lost its focus, and along with it the true sense of what made Apple great. In his book Steve Jobs, biographer Walter Isaacson described how Jobs led his first product strategy review meeting by asking the assembled team a series of simple questions about what products he should recommend to his friends and what aspects of Apple’s history were evident in the designs the teams were working on. When clear answers were not forthcoming, Isaacson wrote (based on the recollections of one person at the meeting), “He grabbed a magic marker, padded to a whiteboard, and drew a horizontal and vertical line to make a four-squared chart.... Atop the two columns he wrote ‘Consumer’ and ‘Pro’; he labeled the two rows ‘Desktop’ and ‘Portable.’ Their job, he said, was to make four great products, one for each quadrant.... The room was in dumb silence.”

Jobs’s product development philosophy was the central engine that drove the company during its glory years. His almost unreasonable demands for design perfection have now become the stuff of legend. In retrospect, despite his other leadership limitations (some of which may well have hindered employees), it is evident that Steve Jobs had not only the necessary clarity and focus but also the ability to communicate it very crisply, and often very sharply, down the line so that everyone associated with the company clearly understood what was expected of him or her.

Aligning clarity of purpose and direction cannot be left to chance or to the variable strengths of different leaders down the chain. An organizational process is needed to drive alignment consistently throughout the organization.

The militaries of the world use a process called “commander’s intent” to ensure clarity of purpose and direction. A commander briefing his or her captains and lieutenants might say, “We need to take that hill and wait for reinforcements.” With that single statement of intent, the commander has made the purpose and direction clear.

After the subordinate officers have had time for initial planning, the commander reconvenes them and asks each one to share the statements being communicated to the troops and the broad outlines of their plans. These follow-up meetings create a degree of alignment that does not exist in many corporations.

We have worked with organizations to help translate commander’s intent into leader’s intent, a more palatable term for civilian organizations. Leader’s intent is a process for verifying alignment of purpose and supporting implementation plans at each handoff in the path from strategy to results.

Because leader’s intent provides clarity of purpose and direction, teams no longer waste time second-guessing unclear directives. They can spend their time and energy focusing on creative solutions to achieve results. Clarity removes the hindering effects of uncertainty.

Although leader’s intent should start at the top and become a common practice, midlevel managers can seek clarity of purpose and direction from those above and around them in the hierarchy. Managers should ask for a few minutes to present the purpose and direction they are sharing with their teams and the broad outlines of their implementation plans.

During these meetings, they can ask for feedback on their alignment with their own leaders. This approach is more productive than asking leaders to restate their unclear or unspoken statement of purpose and direction.

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  1. Heike Bruch and Jochen I. Menges, “The Acceleration Trap,” Harvard Business Review, April 2010: Clear thinking on how leaders can get out of the way by reversing the effects of initiative overload.
  2. Ken Favaro, “We’re from Corporate and We’re Here to Help,” s+b [online only], Apr. 8, 2013: Sound prescriptions for shifting from hindering corporate governance to focus on truly helping BUs sustain profitability.
  3. Richard Rumelt, Good Strategy Bad Strategy: The Difference and Why It Matters (Random House, 2011): A straightforward way to think about crafting and implementing actionable strategies that overcome obstacles to success.
  4. For more thought leadership on this topic, see the s+b website at:
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