Priorities set the course of direction for an organization and the teams that carry them out. Yet even the best-laid plans get changed and updated based on unpredictable circumstances out of leaders’ control. A team’s resilience is shown by how they respond to shifting priorities, and it’s up to a leader to communicate those changes effectively.
Tom Maffey, a senior advisor at McChrystal Group, has a breadth of experience doing exactly that, leading teams through shifts in the market and a global pandemic. He shares how he learned to prioritize from his decades in the military and how he tailors how he communicates priorities to various groups to ensure the message is digested and enacted.
In the Q&A below, Maffey discusses how his more than 30 years leading teams in the military shaped his views on prioritization and his approach to building high-performing teams in the private sector and government as a trusted advisor.
Q: What leadership principles did you learn from your decades in the military, and how are they applied today in your current role?
A: To me, the most important trait of a leader is the ability to communicate. Both vertically to superiors as well as to a team in a way that is understandable to both. Let's say theoretically I'm a one-star general talking to a bunch of three- and four-star generals. The language I'm going to use in communicating with them is different than the language I'm going to use talking to a bunch of folks who have two or three years in the army.
In the private sector, sometimes it's as simple as identifying gaps in information and then filling them. Keeping your people informed about what's happening at the next level in the organization, even if it's at a general level.
Q: With all that a leader may have on their mind and on their plate, how do you decide what information needs to be shared and communicate that effectively when you're talking about overarching priorities?
A: First and foremost, organizations have to establish what I call enduring priorities. These may be your corporate values or guiding principles, and they serve as directions for long-term priorities. These broad mission statements can be applied in a very practical fashion to help when deciding what to do with your time and resources. And being able to let people know what they look like in action is really what's critical. Those enduring priorities really must be communicated downward.
Then there are also non-enduring priorities. I use the term communicate very broadly. It's about communicating priorities, and it's also about communicating context, communicating concerns. There are a whole bunch of aspects of communication that have to go up and down.
The setting of priorities is highly contextual, and so a leader has to think about them within the big picture and communicate them to anyone who it impacts.
Q: Can you expand on the role that trust and accountability play when empowering your team to go out and act on the priorities that are set? And what does this look like when priorities shift?
A: Trust must be earned. One of the key aspects of communication to me is telling people the ‘why’ behind the decision. The decision to change your priorities from A, B, and C to C, D, and E. You can't just say we're going to C, D, and E, and we've dropped A and B. You have to tell them why and if people understand the why behind decisions, they will support those decisions 99% of the time.
We have a framework called a Quarterly Strategic Review. Once a quarter, you gather your team together, and you look at what are my objectives for this quarter, revenue, profit, etc. We ask how we are doing and what activities, strategies, and tactics were we engaged in. Some of those strategies and tactics are not going to be working. So, you make decisions to pull resources off the ones that aren't working and you either go to new ones, or you reinforce those that are having unexpected success. That's a change in priorities. You have just reprioritized the set of activities you're going to engage in to achieve your objectives, but you haven't changed your objectives
Q: How did shifting priorities and objectives look in real time as you helped lead a state during its response to the COVID-19 pandemic? What lessons can leaders learn from that time?
A: That was a classic example of shifting priorities over time to address changing needs. The first priority was getting personal protective equipment, and the next priority was testing and getting enough tests into the state and then getting them dispersed. And then the next priority was contact tracing.
I did a lot of listening and always focused on what's next. I want to listen to what's happening right now, But I want to understand what's next and are we set up to do what's next, whatever what's next is. And then, when it came time to make that transition to the next priority, we already had the skeleton of a plan developed that could then be executed.
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