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How to Manage: Executing Strategy

AMY BERNSTEIN: You’re listening to Women at Work from Harvard Business Review. I’m Amy Bernstein. When I think of what I do every single day in my work, it really comes down to moving the teams I oversee toward our strategic goals. I make decisions about priorities and about how people are spending their time, I give guidance on which direction to take on any given project. But everything is really always about making sure everyone knows where we’re going and that we’re all in sync getting there. Getting teams to move in sync, as you probably know, can be super challenging.

ANDREA BELK OLSON: And my personal style was meet with the team weekly and it was a big whiteboard of what’s going right and what’s not, and what do you need?”

AMY BERNSTEIN: Andrea Belk Olson is a strategy consultant who’s written for HBR about the challenges executing a strategy presents for mid-level managers, like when the plan seems vague or uninspired or unattainable. She’s also written about the opportunities carrying out the master plan can present, which she and I will cover from the beginning to the end of our conversation. She’ll advise on how to get clarity when there isn’t enough and how to address employees’ skepticism. She’ll also suggest ways to get people to pay attention to and care about your progress updates. Mid-level managers are the ones who, as Andrea writes, can make or break the plan. So, let’s make the plan, okay? Because being proactive and deliberate instead of simply going through the motions is the right and, frankly, more interesting thing to do. And it’s what the company expects of us.

Andrea, it’s always seemed to me that strategy execution is where mid-level managers can shine. It’s where you can demonstrate that you, as a mid-level leader, really grok the goals and the vision of the organization’s leadership and that you are able to mobilize and inspire a team to achieve those goals. How do you see that particular role in strategy execution? The role of the mid-level manager?

ANDREA BELK OLSON: I think it’s often underutilized, and that strategy execution really is this bigger, greater opportunity, especially for women to elevate their business acumen, diving into actually how the broader business operates on a higher level. And I think this means really learning the economics behind, let’s say any corporate strategy, understanding why certain decisions were made and how they drive that bigger picture success. And oftentimes as a mid-level manager, that longer, bigger arc is hard to see, because you don’t have transparency and insight to some of the details behind those decisions, maybe it’s the macroeconomic climate or competitor inroads or things along those lines. But really successfully understanding strategy and successful strategy execution really requires mid-level managers to start thinking and speaking, I think, in the mindset and language of a business leader. And that’s not just focusing on execution solely and the tactics and initiatives thereof, but taking more of a business decision mindset and thinking strategically yourself on how to drive key choices.

AMY BERNSTEIN: You said that this is an opportunity, especially for women because they get to demonstrate or to hone their business acumen. Is that a particularly troublesome area for women in this role?

ANDREA BELK OLSON: I think it crosses both genders, but I think traditionally it does fall in a women’s camp. Because stereotypes are bound, women tend to execute very, very effectively and efficiently. And that can be a trap, because once you are the one that’s seen as getting it done, you’re not seen as the one that’s thinking strategically. And I think that there’s three big traps that women especially fall into in this arena. And, really, one is hyper-focusing on the deliverables and not the outcomes. We get stuck in tactical mode, and once that strategy is delivered, we immediately devise initiatives and plans, and that just positions us as the doer and not the visionary in the eyes of leadership.

I think number two is really not having an understanding of the strategic goals and objectives within your sphere of influence’s context. Meaning, those objectives are often broad, abstract, obscure, and they don’t really provide direction. And I’ll give you a good example. When I was a mid-level manager back, gosh, 15, 20 years ago now, at a multinational corporation, our organization developed a strategic goal that focused on 15% revenue growth across the board. And so, this goal insinuated that growth could come from anywhere, but growth actually couldn’t come from anywhere. There were some areas of the business that we had great succession, that were quite saturated when there were other areas that were untapped and had bigger potential. And so, we lose sight of that when we want to just jump into action without looking back at the context.

The third thing I think is a trap that we fall into is being stuck in the proverbial, “This is the way we’ve always done it,” mindset. And we’re all susceptible to status quo bias, but a new strategy might require us to have new activities and perspectives that the old strategies or the old approaches really aren’t suitable for this new situation. And it might require a new way of thinking or entirely different approach. And sometimes that fear of change, that fear of the new can really put us in a state of inertia.

AMY BERNSTEIN: One of the questions I always ask myself when I am trying to mobilize a team that I oversee to execute on a strategy, particularly a new strategy, is, “Do I really understand what’s shaping this strategy?” Because I haven’t always, and it has always led to tears. What other questions should a mid-level manager ask herself as she’s thinking about executing on a strategy?

ANDREA BELK OLSON: To your point, and what we alluded to before is, the first thing you shouldn’t do is hit the ground running. After that big town hall presentation where everybody gets excited and they’ve got this elevation and motivation and you want to start going and doing, the first thing you have to understand is, I don’t have enough information. I have a very high-level overview of a bunch of generalities. So, I’d say the first step is to take that strategy and read it in detail many times over. Start thinking about questions you have. Start thinking about gaps that you think are there.

I’d say the next step is to really try to fully understand the motivations and objectives behind the strategy, as you alluded to, not just the numbers, but the why, what is driving this change? And then determine what data and insights you need to provide clarity. For instance, if let’s say going back to, again, the strategy talks about growth in aggregate, where should that growth come from? What would be considered good growth versus bad growth, profitable growth versus growth that might not be profitable? And what information do you need to really determine that? And of course, you need to identify where you can source that information, and that may be research, that might be studies, that might be internal resources or even different departments within the organization.

AMY BERNSTEIN: One thing that I have found, as a mid-level manager, is that, when the strategy is either vague or too high level for me to know exactly how to implement, how to execute on it, I have thought it through, done some of the work that you just described. And then I always play back my plan to my boss before I do anything and ask, “How does this sound?” Because I find that, well, A, my boss is closer to the strategy making than I am often, but also it helps to get that insight from him, honestly. So, I wonder if you have other advice for our listeners who are trying to absorb the strategy, understand what it means for the team and plot a road forward?

ANDREA BELK OLSON: It’s very important to not assume certain things. Your approach of getting a litmus test from your boss of, “This is how I interpret this, what do you think about this? I’m looking for feedback,” is fantastic. I also think it’s very important to start with questions, showing that you’ve read it, you understand it, and that those questions are again, very business minded. You’re looking at the bigger picture – not just solely your department or your department’s position within the organization or even what assumptions you might be making on what the strategy has and how it impacts your department. You’re looking at the bigger picture.

So, for example, you might have questions about what success looks like? And let’s say you’re heading a marketing team and you say, “Okay, great, we could put together a few campaigns. We can do some tactical things and really get growth up.” But a strategic question would be, “How would this impact other departments? If we had a huge influx of new customers, would finance or customer service be able to manage that? Has the strategic team taken a look at that? And give me some insight on how that’s being addressed.” So, you’re looking at it from a broader operational perspective and not solely your own.

AMY BERNSTEIN: We have published – HBR has published – a lot on the importance of buy-in when you’re executing on a strategy, and sometimes I have felt, and I know other mid-level managers have felt, that it’s hard to buy into something that you don’t understand because you weren’t part of it, you weren’t part of the strategy making. How do you advise mid-level managers to get involved if they’re not invited into the conversation? Any thoughts there?

ANDREA BELK OLSON: Yeah. It’s hard because this really all depends on your organizational culture. I’ve worked in environments in the past where mid-level managers were just intentionally left out of the strategic development process. And then there were cases where strategy design was very immersive and collaborative process. So, it’s important to consider what your organizational culture will tolerate. But I think there’s a few things you can do in pretty much any situation. Number one, you can ask to participate as an observer so you can use this as a learning opportunity, especially if there’s certain internal limitations in regards to organizational culture. Two, you could ask to participate and emphasize that you can bring to the table internal, historical and operational insights and help the organization really identify unforeseen risks. So, you’re positioning yourself, again, as looking at the bigger picture. And this could be things that are resource based, infrastructure based, culturally based – it really spreads the gamut.

Thirdly, another way to do it is, you can ask to participate at key times. So, maybe there’s points in the strategic development process where leadership really wants to keep this amongst themselves, but there’s surely certain milestones where they’ve crossed a threshold that maybe you can attend and provide the opportunity to give key observations and insights. But worst case, you could ask your boss, you can ask your superior for a quick meeting debrief on the strategy process at select times, so you can get that feedback maybe indirectly if no other avenues are open.

AMY BERNSTEIN: Right. You’ve got nothing to lose by going to your boss and saying, “I bet the strategy conversations are going to hit this part of the organization or this part of the operation, and I’d be very happy to help you understand it at the ground level if that would be helpful to you.”


AMY BERNSTEIN: Articulate the value you think you could bring.

ANDREA BELK OLSON: Exactly. And it has to be at that same strategic level.

AMY BERNSTEIN: Mm-hmm. So, what if you’ve attended the town hall and you hear this strategy and you are not wowed by it? It’s not differentiating in your view, it’s not really all that different from the old strategy, whatever, you’re having a little trouble feeling enthusiastic about it. How do you then sell it to your team?

ANDREA BELK OLSON: I can’t tell you how many times I’ve personally and even indirectly faced that challenge of, for proverbially putting lipstick on a pig. They’ve changed the name, they’ve changed the logo or the tagline, and now it’s a new strategy when really it fundamentally is no different than before. But it’s true that some strategies actually aren’t focused on differentiation, and that’s okay. A strategy can be designed for a wide variety of reasons – anything from gaining market share and, let’s say, certain business segments, to maybe shifting organizational focus to certain operational or technical risks within the company. So, even if you think that strategy isn’t all that great, it’s really important to communicate to your team and understand yourself that underlying thought process behind it. So, it’s, what are those specific business challenges that it’s meant to address? What is the why behind it?

AMY BERNSTEIN: And that’s a great conversation to have with someone who was closer to the strategy making. I have been there in the past and I’ve learned that if you’re not super enthusiastic about it, chances are you’ve missed something and it’s up to you to figure it out.


AMY BERNSTEIN: I would say, if someone asked me this question, don’t just sit with this dissatisfaction. Get underneath the strategy, talk to someone on your executive committee about it and just ask constructive questions with the assumption that you’ve missed something before you give up on it.

ANDREA BELK OLSON: Right. Because oftentimes that strategy document, whatever form it takes, can be an oversimplification of what the strategy really means. And so, people tend to try to fill in the gaps with their own assumptions. And there were big decisions made behind the scenes because really the best strategy is not just about what you’re choosing to do, but what you’re choosing not to do. And so, it’s very important to understand why those decisions were made and really what those bigger objectives are.

AMY BERNSTEIN: Yeah. A 100%. Now, there’s another thing that I think happens. I’d love to get your view on this. So, you, yourself, the mid-level manager… you’re buying in, you get it, you think it’s right, but you’re having a lot of trouble motivating your team, sparking their enthusiasm. What do you say to that mid-level manager?

ANDREA BELK OLSON: Well, the first thing I would say not to do is tell them to suck it up. Even though you’ve bought in, but you’ve had probably time and commitment to digest it, ask questions, think about it. So, you have this deeper understanding of it much more than they do. And so, the important thing is to identify the historical baggage that probably resides within your team and within the company. And what I mean by this is, there’s been strategies before, things have happened either successfully or unsuccessfully, and this all influences their acceptance of change. So, these are cognitive obstacles that definitely stall any new strategy implementation. So, it’s important, whether you feel they’re illogical or petty, to really identify what those are and proactively address them. It’s important to give those concerns and perceptions legitimacy and not just, “Yep, yep, I understand, I hear you,” because that’s really just lip service. It’s about finding specific things you can do to genuinely address what they perceive as a potential risk concern, and sometimes even a concern for the future of their job if some of these strategies may have a personal impact on them.

AMY BERNSTEIN: It sounds as if you need to have the deeper conversation to understand where the resistance is coming from, if it’s in fact resistance and not simply apathy.

ANDREA BELK OLSON: Right. Or just simply fear of change.


Well, which we all have, we are human beings. I was talking to a colleague a little while ago about her feeling that women feel a particular responsibility to sell, to persuade their teams, their direct reports, that the strategy is sound. Does that comport with your experience?

ANDREA BELK OLSON: Personally, yes. I worked in an environment many years ago – I was the only female on an all-male executive team. So, there was a very different atmosphere to contend with. And I think that the question you pose is really partially driven by this antiquated perception that women are less assertive. I think that there might be a perception that we need to be pressured to ensure our team is backing us. And maybe this ties to the fact that we’re seen as more empathetic, and that can be misconstrued as folding to pushback. But men, at least from my experience, not all their team members were on board sometimes. And what I found was the difference in acceptance, was the confidence your team had in your ability to go to bat for them. They didn’t have to accept the entire strategy, they knew that there were going to be challenges, but they wanted the confidence that if faced with that challenge, you would be the one to say, I’m going to help overcome that for you and clear the roadway. And I believe that that’s really the big difference.

AMY BERNSTEIN: How do you communicate that message, that you’re there as their champion, that you’re going to clear the roadway, whatever is needed in that moment?

ANDREA BELK OLSON: I think the first thing is, you have to prove it through action. And that can start with small wins, things that start building that confidence and trust and move all the way to those big things that maybe seem to be immovable objects. And so, you have to have some creativity on how you approach that. And then have that two-way communication of saying maybe there is an immovable object, but there’s a lot of ways to handle it. Maybe it’s a timing issue, maybe it’s something where we have to shuffle people around into different roles to get rid of this obstacle. And have transparency to what that process looks like and how you’re approaching it. So, they’re going to have a lot of trust in you when they feel that they’re not only involved with the process, but they’re heard and they understand that you’re actively taking the steps to clear that pathway for them.

AMY BERNSTEIN: I have sometimes veered a little too far into taking on my teams, upset their fear, I get why people are resistant to change, I have felt it myself. And one thing I’ve learned to do was, before I make a serious commitment one way or the other, I give myself a chance to walk away and think about it and think about the implications. I don’t agree to push back immediately if I can identify that that agreement is coming from a place of empathy and not something more strategic. Is this the right thing to do for the organization?” I try to identify a better way to handle the upset. But for me, it takes walking out of the room and taking a breath. Any thoughts about that approach?

ANDREA BELK OLSON: I think it’s a fantastic approach. And I mean this in the best possible way, but I almost perceive it in the sense of raising a child. If you have a child that’s upset, you want them to stop and try to think about and articulate why they’re upset. And sometimes we want to react and try to make things better immediately, but that exercise in truly sitting down and articulating, “What is bothering you and why?” And working through that mental logic applies to adults just as well. And it starts with ensuring that they can explicitly state what their concern is, and then what impact they think that problem may have. So, now they’re working through that process. And that opens the door for discussing a variety of different solutions for it. But if you are emotionally wound up into it… I fully agree that you need to stop, take a moment and really think about the context and think about how you want to approach that conversation.

AMY BERNSTEIN: Then I want to explore this with you. What happens when someone on your team really, you’ve talked this through, you’ve tried to get underneath the fear, the anxiety, I know you’re not supposed to say, “Suck it up.” What comes before “suck it up?”

ANDREA BELK OLSON: I think that what comes before “suck it up” is, “What do you think we should do?” Put the onus on the other person, to say, “I feel your concerns, I understand them. I can even articulate them back to you so you truly understand that I know what you mean, but I’m not the sole person with all the answers. I really do need your participation, insight, experience to provide me some suggestions that maybe we even can collaborate on.” But I think the important thing is that with frustration, some people want instant gratification. And so, no matter how a solution is found, that there sometimes requires some patience. And it’s important to, if that process is going to be long, to check back in with them, help them understand that this isn’t an overnight deal, really. And that as long as they’re respected and heard and they’re not hopefully ignored, and it gets pushed under the rug, you’re actively engaging with them and haven’t forgotten, I believe that that confidence and respect will retain.

AMY BERNSTEIN: I sure hope so. I got to read your article, Three Reasons Why Every Department Needs Its Own Strategy, and yes, yes, I wanted to stand up and cheer. You’re absolutely right, and I wonder if you could just show us how this has played out in real life. Can you give us some examples of women who have taken their company’s strategy and brought it down to their team’s level, spelled out what it means and made that work?

ANDREA BELK OLSON: Oh, yes. And I am shocked as well that many organizations don’t do this. They may have business plans for specific departments and of course, budgets, but they’re not strategies. They’re just a list of initiatives and tactics and projects. They haven’t really translated that corporate strategy into something that their department can really design their own supporting strategy around. A great example is, a client we had had a corporate strategy that said, “We will differentiate through superior customer service.” But the question for every single department is, what is superior customer service? What should be done differently that’s not done today? Or what should be eliminated, continued, or expanded? And that ambiguity leads to every department’s efforts just becoming that grab bag of initiatives or just repackaging the old things that they’ve always done. So, really a supporting strategy is that translation.

And we had a client, a mid-level manager at a large multibillion-dollar financial institution. And a new corporate strategy had just been rolled out, they wanted to focus on a set of specific products and services as their opportunity to grow. And so, what happened is, is this department head, she was in a service area that was a series of supplemental services that complemented these products, and she actually took the initiative to develop a supporting strategy with her entire team. They met for about six weeks, a few times a week, and identified ways to streamline and enhance the customer experience surrounding the purchase and use of these products.

That really helped them uncover specific operational and process things that where if she took an action that touched another department, oftentimes there was a hiccup or a gap. So, because they worked through their strategy, they could identify those things, bring that to customer service or maybe product development and say, “This is what we’d like to achieve, but we need your help here too.” And that department may say, “Yeah, that’s been a problem for us for quite some time.” Gave them the opportunity to work together and solve something that wasn’t just a superficial fix to make things better and grow and achieve the corporate strategy, but actually really address the infrastructure that was impacting that greater success goal.

AMY BERNSTEIN: You’ve been given a new strategy, you’ve done the work to understand it, you’ve gotten your team to help articulate what the strategy means for their work, buy-in all around, enthusiasm even, and six months, a year into it, it’s not working, what do you do then? I, because I’m built the way I am, would immediately blame myself. But maybe that’s not the right way and not the most constructive way forward. What do you do?

ANDREA BELK OLSON: Well, it’s possible it might be your problem. It’s possible it might not be your problem. I believe that at the end of the day it is, because when a strategy isn’t getting traction, the blame game comes into play. And another client we worked with had churned through a bunch of strategies over a six-month, year period with little success. And what naturally happened, departments pointed the finger at each other saying, “That department is the reason. This department is the reason.” It caused a lot of internal turmoil, it amplified posturing and internal competition.

You can say, “Well, it wasn’t us, we’ve checked all our boxes.” But it doesn’t mean that that is not going to impact overall organizational culture and organizational success at the end of the day. I think it’s important for mid-level managers to see if something is not working six months… a year is a long time. That’s a lot of energy, resources and money. Speak up early if something’s not hitting the mark. Think about and try to identify what those possible causes are. What are possible proposed solutions? What can change that trajectory? Because I believe that if someone isn’t actively engaging and communicating what they’re doing in regards to strategy, communicating positive outcomes or causes for concern, that really you may become the fall guy depending on the organization’s politics.

AMY BERNSTEIN: All right. No one likes to communicate bad news. How do I, as a mid-level manager, tell my manager that this isn’t working? What do I say?

ANDREA BELK OLSON: Well, I think you have to put yourself in the shoes of that upper-level manager. And so, it’s important first to try to identify the problem as early on as possible before it becomes a massive problem. Now, your communication is, “This isn’t working that great, but it’s not the end of the world.” The second thing is that you have to present the fact that you have thought this through, you’ve really identified root cause, you’re taking corrective action, what’s the timeline on that corrective action? What is your next step in transparency to, if that doesn’t work, then what? But it shows that you’ve had not only insight, but foresight as to what is going on with your department, what is not working? You have your finger on the pulse and you’re proactively addressing the issue. I think that sometimes when you have to deliver bad news, it does not have to be so bad if you can effectively mitigate that.

AMY BERNSTEIN: I just want to press on one thing you said because it seems so important. You have to diagnose what’s going on. And that’s a great opportunity to bring the team in. Because they have insight you don’t have, so you’ll learn and you’ll get to a better answer. But it also says very clearly to them, “I’m not pointing fingers, we’re figuring this out together.”

ANDREA BELK OLSON: Exactly. To assume that you have all the answers just because you are the manager or the department leader is very presumptuous. When we talk about communication, and my personal style was meet with the team weekly – a big whiteboard of what’s going right and what’s not, what do you need to make it right? Because hiccups happen, things slow down, something is not delivered on time, and that’s going to be the way business operates sometimes.

AMY BERNSTEIN: Right. Let’s talk about the other side of this communication. Your team is just firing on all cylinders, the plan is working and you’re achieving the growth, or you’ve penetrated the new market or whatever your team’s piece of the new strategy is. How do you communicate that in a way that… Well, there’s peril there, and I wonder if you’d talk about the peril and then how to avoid the peril.

ANDREA BELK OLSON: Oh, I can tell you from firsthand experience as a twenty-something year old that’s eager to try to accomplish so many things that I overstepped my bounds.

AMY BERNSTEIN: Give us an example. What’d you say?

ANDREA BELK OLSON: There was times where I was in a broader management meeting and I wanted to share all the accomplishments my team had done. And so, it was my turn to speak, and I had this very long laundry list of, “We got this, we got this, we did this on time, this came under budget.” And you’re expecting that big attaboy when culturally speaking, to be totally honest, whether it’s legitimate or not, it can make others look bad. And so, there’s that undercurrent of, “Oh, now I don’t look like I’m doing as well.” And then that can build resentment. So, I think you have to make sure that you’re not positioning your accomplishments in a way that’s about solely you or the team. “We launched this campaign, it had X number of likes, etc.” These are things that only that department is going to appreciate. Other departments want to know, How that impacts me? How does that impact what I’m trying to achieve?

Again, it’s about the business overall. It’s about growing the organization. And those report outs, those discussions of what you’re accomplishing, it needs to show what you’ve accomplished in the framework, in the context of the strategy. It needs to show you what are potential risks that you see coming down the line. And then also it gives you the opportunity to say, “We’re collaborating with customer service to make sure that that speed and pace of let’s say, a specific initiative, is not going to overwhelm them, that we can sustain the highest level of service while continuing to grow.” It’s that consideration. And I think the more visual, the better. Something that’s graphically oriented, something that’s easy to skim, something that… what you call an executive memo. If you treat other department leaders like executives, they’re going to really appreciate the fact that you’re respecting their time by not giving them a 20-page document on all the things you’ve gotten done.

AMY BERNSTEIN: Andrea, you’re fabulous. Thank you so much. This was a real pleasure.

ANDREA BELK OLSON: Of course. Thank you. Anytime.

AMY BERNSTEIN: My colleagues, Jennifer Long and Gabriela Spatolisano are back after their Women at Work debut last episode. Welcome back.

JENNIFER LONG: Great to be here.

GABRIELA SPATOLISANO: Thank you for having me.

AMY BERNSTEIN: Can we start by talking about what happens when you actually doubt the strategy? What do you do Jen? How do you even raise that? How do you talk to your manager or your stakeholders about it? I’ve been on the receiving end of your argument.

JENNIFER LONG: Yes, you have. I have a very current story actually. I’ve been on a project executing a strategy that I was, am, really excited about, really a new learning approach, very, very excited about it. And we’ve been working on it for about a year. And in the course of working on it, we learned new things, things happened in the market. We learned what it would actually take to execute on this strategy. We did some more research and realized we wanted to get something to market more quickly.

And so, there’s an effort to not throw the strategy out, but reshape it. Reshape it in a way that would allow us to go faster and still maintain. But when this new strategy was first presented to me, I was not on board with it because I was so excited about the original vision. I just felt like we were losing some of the specialness, losing some of the exciting differentiating ideas that we were working on. And what I had to do was less about convincing the leadership team and more almost convincing myself and then being able to come back with some specific things that I thought we could tweak that wouldn’t work.

AMY BERNSTEIN: But I remember you’re bringing up some user testing we had done to argue for one particular feature of this product.

JENNIFER LONG: Yes, I did come back and make some arguments to maintain some of the features. I also went away and actually I had to get into the weeds. We were talking at this conceptual level and I was skeptical. And so, I had to go… I went away for a week and actually built out a model of what this new vision could look like. Spent time designing and being a learning designer like, What might this look like and what could work of this new idea? I forced myself. And then what happened is, I started to get really excited about the new idea because there was some flexibility. There were some things that being proposed that I was even more convinced wouldn’t work. And I was able to go back and say, “I don’t think this’ll work, but we could do it this way and still achieve.”

AMY BERNSTEIN: And that was very powerful. Because I heard part of that conversation. And to me that was a form of really hands-on analysis. Real hands-on analysis that where you broke down the original concept and you rebuilt it to see if, given what you know about how to do this and what our learners want, would this work? And then I thought… I felt that you were bought in.

JENNIFER LONG: Totally bought in. Now I’m actually more excited about the new strategy. And what was good about taking the time to step back and sell myself and dig into it, is that now I’m in a much better position to help my team pivot. Because they have been running on the same track I was running on, and now I’ve got to help them shift to a new track.

AMY BERNSTEIN: Okay. Let’s talk about that. So, any change is going to prompt skepticism, any strategic change, and it can run the gamut from, “Oh, great. Another strategic shift,” that skepticism to the deep objection based on experience, data, whatever. What do you do when people on your team just aren’t buying the new plan?

GABRIELA SPATOLISANO: Well, it did happen to me that an entire team reacted violently against my strategy. And I knew, as you say, the obstacle was the uncomfortable or changing. All our tests was manual, so I needed to completely change the strategy to introduce automation. And now automation is a big challenge because you require different set of mind for tests, but it requires also to learn a computer programming skill, to write code. And for them it was a challenge. They need to go back and learning and doing differently what they’ve been very comfortable doing all along.

I was pretty desperate because how can you do an automation when people don’t learn how to write the code? But then one element that I think is human that I play with is everybody think, “Okay, that’s the strategy that Gabriela wanted, but what’s in for me? What does it get me? I had to do all this.” So, I got the job description in the market from HR, also salary range of what is a manual QA. I suppose as an automation QA, it demonstrated that for their career was a step-up, also for the salary. Because it’s true, now, there is the trend in the industry that there is more and more demand for automation QA. So, that was the argument that I used and I say, “It’s good for you. It’s not only good for the company, it’s good for you.” Two of them, when they started to write the code and see how it works, they get that they’re actually into it, and one of them went to take a semester, a class in the university, “Oh, I want to do programming.”

JENNIFER LONG: Wow, that’s great.

GABRIELA SPATOLISANO: The passion. And I’m also like this, I drive a lot of argument with data, but also with passion, because we are human. We are not machine. So, let the team buy-in in the strategy for me means also an emotional aspect.

JENNIFER LONG: One hundred percent.

GABRIELA SPATOLISANO: “Oh wow, that’s exciting. I’m going to do something fun,” and then we can buy in any strategy.

JENNIFER LONG: Well, that’s what happened to me. I had to get excited about it and then conveying that excitement to the team and hoping they…

AMY BERNSTEIN: What if you don’t get excited about this strategy and you still have to mobilize your team? What do you do then?

JENNIFER LONG: That’s harder. I try to find something to get excited about because there’s a business reality sometimes. Maybe it’s not as exciting or sexy or fun, but there’s sometimes just a business mandate. And honestly, in the spirit of transparency, sometimes I share that with my team. I won’t say, “I don’t agree with this.” But I will say, “I understand this isn’t the most exciting project, but the reality is we need to do it. And again, it’s about the benefits and here’s why. Here’s how it’s going to benefit the company, us, you, short-term, long-term, and there will be other more exciting pieces coming down the road.” So, sometimes to me, that’s just a reality.

GABRIELA SPATOLISANO: But you’re right, even if it’s not exciting, but if there is a success, so we are success-driven, right? What is more exciting? I think that would be a success, the company make more money, so my salary or my bonuses. So, I think if we are success-driven, the excitement will come.

AMY BERNSTEIN: Yeah. Because for me, sometimes it’s not even about excitement or lack of excitement. Sometimes it’s just, I’m just skeptical. I’m not sure this will work out the way we hope it’ll work out. And so, what I find very tricky is when I get that same skepticism from my team, they’re casting a skeptical eye on the new articulated strategy, and you share their view. I don’t know, I’m with you, Jen. I feel like I can’t lie, I can’t pretend that I’m just jazzed about this new idea, but what I will say is, “I hear you. I get it. Let’s do what we’re supposed to do until we see a better way to do it.”

JENNIFER LONG: Absolutely. And even if I understand the rationale behind it, sometimes I can go there; “I get it. I share some of your concerns. Here’s where the leadership team is coming from.” But I can’t pretend.

AMY BERNSTEIN: You guys are such naturals. Thank you for joining me again.



AMY BERNSTEIN: For more advice from experts like Andrea, check out the HBR Guide to Executing your Strategy. It’s filled with tips for communicating the plan, maintaining momentum, and course-correcting when necessary. For more podcast episodes like this one, search, whatever app you’re using for HBR on Strategy, it’s curated listening from the archives of other HBR shows like IdeaCast. The feed is currently about 60 episodes long, and growing.

Women at Work’s editorial and production team is Amanda Kersey, Maureen Hoch, Tina Tobey Mack, Rob Eckhardt, Ian Fox, and Hannah Bates – who’s producing this season. Robin Moore composed our theme music. Next week, is there an idea you have for changing how your company does business or an idea for bringing in business? Have you struggled to get senior executives to buy into it or even pay attention? Michigan Ross Professor, Sue Ashford knows how to get the boss to buy in. It’s a skill she calls “issue selling.” She’ll lay out not only the steps, but also the frames of mind that’ll keep you going.

SUE ASHFORD: At some point if the issue is important enough, you have to be willing to risk being annoying.

AMY BERNSTEIN: My colleague and friend, Ellen Bailey, who directs business and culture transformation here at Harvard Business Publishing, will also be part of the conversation. Ellen has successfully sold a lot of issues in her career, and she’ll recount those experiences. I’ve seen her in action, and trust me, you’re in for a treat. I’m Amy Bernstein, get in touch with me and the rest of the show team by emailing

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