The Umbrella Principle: How to influence employees to execute company strategy
Updated: Feb 15
A company’s success is dependent on two things. One, the company’s strategy. Two the company’s execution. When it comes to the latter, many times companies struggle because they are unable to get their employees to align and commit to the strategy. When it comes to leadership, one of your key roles is to define the company’s strategy and to gain buy-in around executing of that strategy. Over the last 15 years I have taught business leaders the umbrella principle which provides employees with a metaphor that demonstrates the benefits of executing within the company's strategy.
The umbrella represents the company strategy. If you stay under the umbrella, meaning inside of the company’s strategy you will have a different experience than you would by going out from under the umbrella. The umbrella provides both shade and protection. By being under the umbrella your movements might be more restricted, but you know rain or shine that you have something between you and the elements. If you decide to venture beyond the parameters of the umbrella, you may enjoy the benefits of sunshine (positive results) but you also open yourself up for the risk of being rained on (failure). When the weather is good, the need for an umbrella is lower. Delivering great results can provide its own layer of protection which will afford you some forgiveness if you are not strictly adhering to the strategy. But if your results no longer are meeting expectations, you are going to be in a lot better situation if you are under the umbrella of the company's strategy when question start raining in.
What I love about this analogy is the visualization of risk and reward. Going a little outside of the umbrella carries some risk, but not as much risk as leaving the umbrella at home. In addition, having a little sprinkle of rain fall on your head (having a small failure) is significantly different than a major down pouring (a big failure). In reality, there are scenarios that are similar to hurricanes where your adherence to the strategy will matter little because of the severity of the event. Things can be so bad that being under the umbrella (executing the company's strategy) will not make a difference to how you are treated. But in most cases if you are executing the company's strategy, and results are not coming, you will be in a better situation than if you had poor results and are also off strategy. By exploring this analogy with employees, you can help them to think more globally about the benefits and risk associated with going off strategy.
If your employees have never been in a board room, they likely are not aware of how much time and energy goes into debating a company’s strategy. Literally hours are spent by CEOs, CFOs, CMOs, senior executives and their direct reports, reviewing data, analyzing trends, and studying marketing conditions all with the goal of defining what is the “right” path for the company to pursue. Because so much time is spent developing strategy, those involved are typically deeply invested. For this reason, the company’s strategy is worth being followed provided that it is ethical and legal. It is important to help employees to understand that they were specifically hired with the purpose of executing the plans that leadership has developed. Everyone
within an organization has a role. Leadership generally defines what needs to be done, and they expect managers and employees to figure out the how to do it. If employees have significant objections to the company's strategy, they should voice their concerns. Great organizations excel at listening to the voices that are closest to the customer and leveraging their insights to inform strategy. But once a decision is made around what needs to be done, it is expected for employees to execute the strategy. If your employees are unable or unwilling to do so, they should consider finding a company to work for that has a strategy they can get behind. People do their best work when their values and principles align with their employer. Many times, employees stay in a job they do not enjoy out of comfort or fear of the unknown, not realizing that their life would improve if they found a place to work that better aligned with the work that they want to do. If they are consistently at odds with the company's leadership, they should ask whether their time and energy would be better served someplace else.
When an employee decides to pursue an action that does not align with the company strategy, they dilute the organizations focus and resources. Most companies hire highly compensated executives, MBAs and consultants to help them to identify ways to get the most out of the company’s resources. When your employees deviate from the strategy, they are basically telling leadership that they know better than leadership what should be done. In some situations, they are correct, but they should evaluate how to manage these situations. Leadership is not always right, and being highly compensated or highly educated does not automatically mean that you have all of the answers. But what it does mean is that a lot of money and trust has been invested into you, and the expectation is that you set the direction for the company and take responsibility for any successes or failure. It is important for employees to consider the different roles and responsibilities within the organization. The role of leadership is to define the strategy, and the role of the workforce is to execute the strategy. This is similar to the relationship between a head coach and a team. One is responsible for drawling up the plays, the other is responsible for executing the plays. Once the play is called, members of the team have the ability to innovate and do what they need to do to be successful, but the expectation is that the play that is called is run. Organizations work best when each member plays their role. It is important to help employees to understand that there can be multiple correct answers to the same question, but organizations are stronger when everyone is aligned and pursuing the same answer.
Early in my career I struggled with professional maturity. I frequently struggled with aligning myself around company strategy. I ran stores within an urban environment, and frequently pushed back on the company strategy because I believed that individuals within headquarters did not under the complexities of running stores in the inner city and asked us to do things that would result in lower operating earnings. For example, we were required to keep items on the sales floor that were frequently stolen such as health and beauty aid products. Instead of working with leadership to find creative solutions to the theft issues, I would direct stores to keep these items behind the counter. Keeping products like these behind the counter is inconvenient for customers and generally leads to lower sales. The impact of my decision to go against strategy resulted in lower sales within those categories.
In my mind, what I was doing was the right thing because my actions were leading to overall increase in profitability because fewer items were being stolen. From leadership’s vantage point, I was taking actions that reduced sales. This was especially troublesome to leadership because part of our strategy was to be a convenient alternative to pharmacies and grocery stores that also sold these products. What felt right to me, and the stores I supported was not what was right for the organization at large. When the topic of lower sales came up, because I was not executing the strategy, I was rained on. The organization had called a play, and they needed me to run it. My failure to execute the strategy left leadership with uncertainty around the type of sales that would be generated if I had just done what they asked.
How could I have handled the situation differently? First, I could have recognized that growing center of store sales was a key part of our company’s strategy. That revenue goals were set based off all stores following the recommended merchandising schematics. Leadership understood that some stores would have elevated theft as a result of this strategy and that they were taking a calculated risk that there was more benefit to having everyone execute the same strategy versus having a different approach in every store.
In fact, by individuals like me not following the recommended strategy an illusion was being created. Stores in urban areas did not experience elevated theft because they were not putting products on the sales floor. As a result, there was no data to confirm our statements that putting those items on the sales floor would result in higher theft. My failure to ask the right questions resulted in me taking action at the store level, that was ultimately hurt the company's ability to collect good information, and make informed decisions based off of facts. My thinking was short-term and local, while leadership was thinking long-term and global. In the end I was the loser because I was delivering the desired result that leadership wanted. The good thing is that I learned from the experience and got better about following strategy.
Fast forward five years. Through hard won wisdom, I learned that sticking to the company’s strategy gave me the opportunity to increase my level of influence within the organization. When employees execute the company's strategy at a high level, leadership pays attention. With this attention, employees can gain greater access which they can leverage to influence future strategic initiatives. It is a big counter intuitive, but the best way to fight against a strategy you disagree with is to execute it at a high level, and then to provide feedback on how it could be improved. This is because leaders tend to care more about facts than feelings. When employees say they feel that something might not work, there is always room for leadership say they are wrong. When an employee can present facts that a strategy does not work, they are in a better place to champion for change. One key call out here is that employees must execute the strategy to the best of their ability. Halfhearted execution will not give you the creditability needed to influence leadership.
The purpose of an organization is to bring a group of people together to accomplish a shared goal. There are multiple paths to accomplish any goal. Organizations function best when there is alignment around their strategies. The higher you are within an organization, the more influence you have on the organization's strategy. During the early stages of employee's careers, it is important to help them to understand that their primary role within the organization is to execute the task that they are asked to do, and to provide feedback