The Importance of Story Telling and Your Strategy: Interview with Greg Oyhenart
Greg Oyhenart, the senior VP of Corporate Development and the Chief Strategy Officer of a BC financial institution, joined us to chat about developing strategy and leading teams. Greg has worked with a variety of orgnizations, from small businesses to midsize enterprises, across a variety of sectors. Through this, he has found parallels across industires for the best ways to lead teams, manage organizations, and implement strategy. Taking strategy back to simplicity, Greg references the father of modern management, Peter Drucker, and some of his key secrets that still work, over 40 years later.
Throughout or chat with Greg, he shares other key insights, and dives into classical management subjects. Some key areas of focus are:
- The importance of organizational story telling and how it relates to developing strategy
- Understanding performance management
- Utilizing various tools to assist with organization wide strategy understanding and implementation
- Behaviour reinforcement that aligns with the organizational strategy
Listen to the full podcast with Greg below.
Anthony Taylor (AT): I’m joined by Greg Oyhenart, who is the senior VP of Corporate Development and the Chief Strategy Officer for a financial institution located here in BC. You have varied experience in the strategic planning, corporate development world, but can you tell our listeners a bit about you and what makes you excited to do what you do?
Greg Oyhenart (GO): Sure. I’ve been a life long resident of Vancouver and BC. I’ve had the opportunity to work in a number of different environments: large corporate, start-up companies, as well as small to midsize enterprises. I think what I find the most interesting or exciting aspect of my job, is looking for those parallels across industries; I’ve worked in different industries as well, and really just looking for those opportunities to bring standard business knowledge, I call them 40 year old secrets, that are not really secrets, and look to implement them in organizations that can take advantage of them, and leverage them for their benefit, and ultimately their customers’ benefit.
Some of the ways that we’ve tried to approach strategy, certainly where I work now, is to try and simplify it and bring it down to something that’s actionable, impactful, and meaningful to the organization. It’s been an interesting exercise, and every day is something different.
AT: When you talk about some of these 40 year old secrets, what are some of your best 40 year old secrets that you can share?
GO: The reference I use to that is one of my favorite authors, Peter Drucker. Drucker essentially is the person who wrote the book on management. Most of his writings are 40 years old or older, and is some of the really basic stuff. One of the key secrets of organizations and strategies, and especially as you’re developing and sharing strategy, is all about story telling. A good example of that is just the time honored tradition of telling and sharing stories in an organization. It’s a great way to teach people, to get people aligned, to talk about what good looks like at an organization.
I think it helps to build, not only to build an understanding of why we do the things that we do, but also story telling is a great form of recognition, which is an important part of any organization, and as they’re developing their plans and executing against them, is making sure you’re stopping to take the time to recognize what’s going well. Story telling is a good example of doing that.
Another time honored, 40 year old secret, is just good old performance management. One of the things that we do here, on our strategy, is make it transparent and highly visible, something that we constantly talk about. We provide updates. We measure the strategy constantly, so we’re always going back to looking to say, “Are we actually on track to hit the projects that we’re doing? Are the measures holding up?” We’re always taking a look at it that way. Again, going back in those standard management disciplines, which sometimes we forget, are equally as important to managing the day to day operations, as well as the long term part, which is the strategy.
AT: Within the two that you mentioned, story telling and performance management, do you have any tips that somebody could take and implement, something you guys do?
GO: We employ a lot of tools. We employ the balanced scorecard approach. We break down our meetings that we talk about … With respect to the strategy, we do a monthly update, almost like a project management template, so all the components of our strategy that we’re working on. For our team here, we’ve got three key priorities, and then we’ve got probably 15 or so, which is probably too many, but we’ve got 15 things or so we want to accomplish over the three years.
We go back and we basically do monthly updates on the strategy of these, making sure that they’re on track. Then once a quarter, we’ll get the team together and do a deeper dive, where we throw them up there and talk about what’s working well, what’s not working well, and what would we do differently, and making sure that whoever’s leading that initiative is highly visible and highly accountable, and also making sure that we’re checking back to the organization, to make sure that we’ve got the right resources and focus on what we need to do, and make course corrections if we need to.
One of the other things that we do, and it’s a simple little thing, back to the story telling is we actually reinforce the behaviours of the strategy that we’re looking for. When we rolled out our strategy here, we very much focused our discussion about the values, and the behaviours that we wanted to see out of the team, which were aligned to executing the strategy. The nice thing is, is when you talk about what’s going on in the business, you can often make good linkages back to what people are actually doing day to day, serving the customer, serving the member in this case, doing something to improve the business that you can actually trace right back to being aligned to our strategy.
What I do, is every two weeks on a Friday afternoon, I’ll write a short story kind of in the form of a Malcolm Gladwell. I’ll usually use a metaphor of some sort, explain why this is important, highlight the key elements of the story and the people involved, and hand out kudos to that. We share that out with the team via email, and we post it for the larger company to see on our intranet, on the following Monday. What’s interesting is that people start looking for it. They love being profiled in the story, so it gives them some recognition. It also gives people a sense of what good looks like, so people can have a chance to see what others are doing in the company, and think about how they can impact the strategy through their own day to day actions.
That’s a really big component of what we try to do, is bring down not only the big team priorities, but actually boil down individual priorities for people to make sure that their day to day actions are really aligned to what we want to accomplish in our strategy.
AT: Having that aligned understanding of what good is, is so important.
GO: We talk a lot here about a common language. One of the things that we try and do is make sure that when we reference it, we never talk about “the” strategy; we talk about “our” strategy. The way we frame that up for people is to make sure that they understand they have a part in it. We also try to veer away from using too much strategy language as well. We’re asking people to figure out what they’re doing, and we start with talking about the what and the why, and then we talk about the how and the when, and then we boil it down to the who.
Ultimately, that’s what all strategy comes down to: answering those questions and making decisions. We try to stay away from too much strategy language, if you will, and boil it down to language that people understand.
AT: On that, because I think it’s interesting. Every organization that I’ve chatted with has a different strategic maturity. How have you found in your various roles, working at different levels of strategic maturity, taking what there might be, little strategic planning framework or somebody who’s not over the top, but thorough when it comes to the strategic planning, how do you address that? How do you incorporate that in your role of being the leader of that?
GO: The organization now, and the previous organization I was with, I would say both characterize as having a very low level of strategic maturity. Successful organizations did stuff a lot that may be more tactically focused, and not necessarily all coordinated within the organization about what they were working on. Again, putting together plans and doing stuff, but not really with a strong sense of aim as to what they were ultimately trying to accomplish. The main focus actually, was to bring in a bit of a strategy process that was very, very simple.
There’s lots of different models you can pick from, but ours was very simple. We called it our strategic wheel, and it was essentially four elements. The first one is deciding what does good look like, so having that discussion. What do we want the future to look like? What do we think the future needs to look like? After you do your size up, aspirationally, where do you want to be? Then you go and do your assessment, you say, well where are we starting from?
Ultimately identifying what should be a gap to where you want to be and where you’re starting from. Then building from there the plans as to how do we close the gap? What do we focus our time and attention on? Then you move to the fourth stage, which is execute, which is the most important part of the strategy. Execute against the strategy. Measure it. Manage it. Talk about it. What’s working well and what’s not. Ultimately circle back; keep checking in back at the top again. We thought this was what good looks like. Is this still what we think it is, or do we need to revamp, or change, or do something different?
It’s trying to keep it very simple so that everybody knows where we’re at in the process. Once we decide where we’re going, we look forward. We don’t look backwards, and try to keep people mindful about what our priorities are. We’ve been able to use it. It’s a very simple framework, but it’s actually been a really good tool for us to be able to get people to stop working on stuff. Don’t divert resources to something that’s not aligned to strategy. Ultimately, a lot of the discussion focuses on what does good look like. We’re constantly moving towards that future state with a better understanding of the time, effort, materials, resources it’s going to take to get us there.
AT: Talking about reinforcing the behaviours and putting this wheel in action, when we look at that, what does this look like from a culture perspective when you tie in the story telling and performance management? How does that affect the people?
GO: I think it gives the people a better sense of what is their role. We’ve implemented a very thoughtful program that gets everybody in the organization thinking about what is their own … We’ve outlined the company purpose. We’ve outlined why we’re here, and who we’re aiming to serve, and how we’re aiming to serve them. We’ve also taken the team through, and we’re part of the way through this, but we’ve taken the team through that exercise to say, what’s your personal mission? What’s your personal purpose in life, and how does this align to where we’re trying to go?
It’s been an interesting exercise because culturally, by forging a much stronger identity of what we want to be, which I think the current plan has helped the organization do … There’s still ambiguity in it, but there’s a lot less than what there was about what is it we want to be, and what do we value. Behaviour wise, we modified our values. We didn’t change a lot from the previous one. One of the things we tried to do was not upend the old strategy, but more to clarify and simplify it.
One of the things we put in there was a new value, and it was accountability, personal accountability. That’s a value that we only changed that one. The others were still the same, and they’re around integrity and all the rest of that. With this one, it sparked a dialogue about what does it mean to be accountable, and how are you as a leader if you’re a leader in the organization, or even just part of the team, what does it mean to you to be accountable? How does that align with your own purpose in life?
For some people that hasn’t been a comfortable dialogue, and a lot of people have chosen to leave as a result of it, not a lot, but a few at varying levels of the organization, because they couldn’t get their own personal alignment to what the team was trying to do. At the same time, we’ve been able to bring in people once they understand what that vision looks like, and their own personal alignment is a good fit to it. They’ve integrated well into the company and are helping us advance the strategy.
You can have the best designed plans in the world, but if it sits on the shelf and it’s not being actioned … That probably was our biggest weakness identified in our strategy, was the ability of the team to execute in a disciplined manner to get stuff done, to get stuff done with the right amount of resources.
One of our strategic priorities is solely focused on our team developing a, we called it a consistent, high performing team. That’s what we expect to see. From there, we’ve been able to take that priority and boil it down to things like collaboration, which is one of our core values, and team work, and break it down for the team to the behaviours that we want to see. Right into our performance discussions, right into the way we manage the business on a daily basis, we can have very good discussions with people about their behaviour. Ultimately, if you get it down at that level, that’s where you start to get the real performance.
You can coach people on behaviour. It’s hard to coach people on outcomes. Outcomes will happen one way or the other. A lot of things can influence them, but we’re getting people to focus in on their own personal, and individual actions, and what actions we need to see from them in order for us to be successful. Where it’s played out this year is probably in the amount of big things that we accomplished, big things we managed to implement, with probably less effort than they would have done in the past, so better planning, better organization.
We run better meetings. We’re more efficient at the way we operate. We don’t start and stop projects. We make sure that we properly scope them before we get going, and properly resourced, and then they go. We’re not making as many mistakes, and those are the things that slow down and frustrate people. A lot of it comes down to their own individual behaviour, and what skills they need to be on the team.
AT: The benefits are both qualitative and quantitative. It sounds like you guys have been able to capture that and show that it works.
GO: When we broke it down, we talked about the personal accountability, so that’s the who. We’ve put in better tools and processes. Again, as one of our priorities about being innovative and efficient as well as having a consistent, high performing team, we’ve focused a lot on putting better tools and processes in place around the how and when, with something as simple as taking the organization, creating and taking the organization, through a proper project management framework.
By bringing in a unified proper project management framework, we’ve been able to create a common language and a common set of simple tools that people can use. Now when we do something, regardless of who’s doing it, we can do it consistently. We’re not relying on a few individuals who know how to do it. We’re training people up so that everybody is on the same page. As we’ve done that, we’ve been able to work through project planning much, much faster because everybody has a common language.
Where we try to focus a lot of the discussion on the strategy, and this is something that we continually do, is understanding the what and the why. We can explain to everybody all the things we’re working on, but where we’re stopping to take the time and make sure everybody understands is, why are we doing this. Simon Sinek has a great book on it and a video. If people don’t the why, the what is not going to be as affective. Taking the time to explain why we’re doing the things that we’re doing is a huge element of our strategy.
AT: We have the good, so let’s go to the other side, the bad. If there were some risks to avoid in the planning process, what would you say that are some mistakes to watch out for, or stumbling blocks moving forward?
GO: The first thing is not starting with the what and the why. Typically, what you see a lot of planning process start with, is there’s an aspiration to do something. It jumps to the how and the when without grounding it in a frank discussion as to the what and the why, and how does it align. We try to slow the team down and focus on that. I’ve seen that go off the rail where we jump to technology solutions. For instance, that classic case if somebody’s trying to fix the business or something big, and they’re tending to go for the biggest home run solution, without really understanding why is that important, or why does it need to be that big. Ultimately, what are you trying to accomplish and how are you measuring success. Really focusing the discussion there, I think that’s a fatal flaw.
I think the other one is grounding it in a reality. One of the things that we did when we put together our strategy as a team, and it was a very painful exercise, we had a very candid discussion about an honest size up of the organization and the industry that we’re in. If you don’t have a good, honest understanding of where you’re starting from, how big that gap is, you’re going to work on the wrong things. You’re not going to put the priorities on the right one. We had a candid, lengthy discussion upfront, and captured that, documented it, and clarified what we meant. What we focused a lot on was our biggest weaknesses in the organization and the industry that we’re in.
We identified that we didn’t necessarily have all the elements on the team to make the journey that we thought we needed to make. It was important to have that discussion upfront because that focused our priorities on what we needed to do to manage and staff the team differently. If you didn’t have that discussion upfront, you’d try a whole bunch of different things, but if you don’t have the right people on the team to accomplish it, you’re not going to be successful. The risk to avoid is avoiding the tough dialogue.
The other one is probably, is you can’t be too tactical. It’s very easy to come up with a set of plans or activities, but if there’s no decisions required as a result of the choices you’re setting up, it’s probably not strategic. You have to think big as you’re looking at the strategy. A lot of times, if you didn’t do it and there was no impact, then it’s not really strategic. You have to make sure that you’re keeping the dialogue and the ideas at the highest levels possible. At the end of the day, you have to face choices about what you’re doing, and if you’re not setting up a choice, and there’s no resource commitments involved, it’s probably not strategic. It’s probably not going to change your fortunes.
You’ve got to save time to make sure you’re not just jumping into action without understanding why you’re doing it. The process we used here, we started with the executive team, but we quickly broadened out once we came up with our framework. We broadened it to a much broader team. We had probably about 22 people involved in the strategy development, which for our organization is about almost 5% of the organization that was involved in actually crafting the strategy and talking about the mission, and the vision, and the values.
We broke it up, and we had teams working on it and coming up with the priorities, but we actually did extend this out a bit. It was a very collaborative effort, even to build the strategy. We said we wanted collaboration in it, so we had to make sure that the strategy also reflected collaboration of a bunch of people from the organization, at different levels, that actually had the input into what we were doing.
AT: How long would you say that process took you?
GO: That was probably one of the challenges. It probably took, substantially to come up with what we could do to the point where we could capture this in a document and then share it out, was probably about four or five months from the time that we started. The challenge that we had here, and it was a constraint, but given where the organization was, the previous strat plan had been rolled out about four or five years early to much fanfare. The problem with it was there was nothing wrong with the strat plan, but it wasn’t really aligned, and it wasn’t really in a very simple format that people could understand, or memorize, or get engaged in.
No one knew what their strategic priorities were. The vision and the mission tended to be written in a little bit more flowery language. We didn’t fundamentally change a lot of what was in the strategy, so much that we clarified what it was that we meant in the strategy, or what the intent was. We focused a lot on that, and then coming up with the simple framework: we’ve got three priorities. What we do under those priorities, what tactics, or strategies, or initiatives we put in, they may be subject to change, but we clarified the three things that were the most important for the organization’s success. Those are the things that we’re hammering home.
It’s good to see, after about a year, that we actually have people in our business, at all levels that can actually articulate what those three things are and why they’re important. We’re feeling pretty good about the fact that they understand them now, and our ability to get things done is translating into better results for us in the short term, but ultimately in the long term as well.
AT: You know that the results and the output are going to be worth it.
GO: There’s that balance of making sure that you have enough time for thoughtful reflection, and then keeping the process going, because that can be a long time for people. The nice thing is, I think the time we’ve put up front, as we develop or refresh the strategy, which we’ll probably do in a couple of years … Our strategy was meant to be a three year plan, but the framework that we created, when we get into it the next time, we’ll have invested the time upfront to create a framework that we can use for a number of years, because you’ll come back and review, review the size up, review the industry, review all those things.
Our general priorities probably have lengths beyond three years. We won’t accomplish them in three years. It might be as simple as what are the fresh set of activities under those things, because the mission hasn’t changed, but it allows you to come back in a short period of time and test to make sure that we’re still on the right things.
AT: We touched on strategy and performance, and tactically what that means, but is there anything else that you would recommend to a CEO or a manager leading strategy?
GO: It comes down to this notion of constant feedback, measurement, and discussion and making sure that you’re assigning accountability. When you break down the strategy, is really drilling it down to the element of the strategy, especially if it’s an initiative, if you’re looking to implement a change, really identifying who that person is, and they’re the champion of that strategy. They own that part of the strategy, and making sure that you create the forum for them to come back and talk about what’s going well, and what’s not going well, and what would they be doing differently, and creating the time and space to have that discussion as a group.
It’s not just coming back and reporting to the CEO. It’s making sure that all the people connected to supporting the strategy, making sure the resources are there, they’re all hearing it from the horse’s mouth about what’s working well and what’s not. I think that’s a key one. Again, I think it goes back to one of those 40 year old business secrets of always insuring you’ve got resource alignment. Often times things fail because they’re not adequately resourced, or they’re improperly scoped, or both. It’s making sure that you’ve got good planning processes, and good mitigation processes that can go back, so if somebody’s being tasked with doing something, do they have everything they need? Are they set up for success? If not, what’s your organization doing to help them?
Meetings are the bane of every company’s existence, but there’s just no shortcut to doing that, where you’ve got everybody in the room and you’re walking through and hearing the updates live about what’s working well and what’s not. It creates a lot of good tension. If somebody knows they’ve got to show up and give an update, then they’re going to make sure they’re getting the work done.
I always use the term celebrate failure. When you start in on a process like this, something’s going to get screwed up. There’s going to be something that doesn’t go as planned, or there’s a shift in the market. Something’s going to go wrong. I think you have to create that environment where if somebody’s accountable for doing something, you’ve got to give them latitude. If it truly is strategic, there’s a good chance you’re going to be making a mistake, or something is going to go wrong. You’ve got to understand that if it doesn’t work, it doesn’t mean that you’re done, but celebrating failure is all about understanding what’s gone wrong what do we do about it: revectoring, reorganizing and trying again, or doing something different.
The last thing you want is somebody who, if something’s not going well, to run away and hide and not talk about it. One of the things we’ve implemented here is if something’s going wrong, it’s no one person’s fault, but one person has accountability to make sure the issue gets on the table, and understands the root causes of what’s causing this, and bring the team involved, and what resources do we need to divert to make sure that it’s successful. That’s where their accountability lies. If it goes wrong, it’s almost never one person’s fault, but a lot of organizations will work that way. You’ve got to be comfortable with failure.