Organizations of all sizes and types, from Fortune 500 companies to grassroots non-governmental organizations, periodically turn to strategic planning to reconnect with their core values, articulate their mission and chart goals and objectives to help them achieve their long-term vision. Strategic planning has been defined as a systematic process of envisioning a desired future and translating this vision into clearly defined goals or objectives and a sequence of steps to achieve them.

An effective strategic planning process can be a transformative moment in the life of a company. It is also challenging and complex, and many companies struggle to do it effectively. If not conducted carefully and intelligently, the results may send the organization down the wrong path, wasting resources and imperiling its future. However, when successful, an effective strategic plan can be a positive force that drives results for years to come. 

Strategic planning also presents an important opportunity for the executives involved in the process. As companies convene high-performing teams to wrestle with their most fundamental issues, participants who can demonstrate collaboration, analytical ability and a capacity for innovative, strategic vision will establish their reputation as thought leaders, indispensable to the senior team. 

How can you snare a coveted seat at the strategic planning table? And if you land a seat, how can you ensure you make the most of the opportunity? First and foremost, build a reputation as a valuable contributor to the organization. Find opportunities to be invited to meetings that include the executive leadership. Be bold, and ask to be invited. Once you are at the meeting, prove yourself. Contribute to the dialogue in meaningful and impactful ways. Demonstrate your knowledge of the company’s business and your awareness of the key internal drivers and external forces affecting current and future results. 

General Counsels’ Seat at the Strategic Planning Table

As general counsel and a member of my company’s strategic planning team, I’ve seen firsthand how the strategic planning process works and experienced how rewarding participation in strategic planning can be in terms of job satisfaction and career growth. And, for today’s general counsels, contributing a strategic voice on non-legal matters has become a basic requirement of the job. Harvard Business Review has observed that the general counsel is “now a core member of the top management team and offers advice not just on law and related matters but helps shape discussion and debate about business issues.”  

It is clear that the perception of general counsel is moving well beyond its stereotypical “Chicken Little” meets “Boy Who Cried Wolf” roots as someone whose chief activity was to drone on endlessly about the risks involved in every company action. Today’s general counsel must be a problem solver and trusted advisor who facilitates, rather than impedes, the company’s business plans, all the while thinking more like a business executive than purely a lawyer. Moreover, the corporate legal department must maintain a constant focus on creating value by closely aligning internal legal resources with the legal matters that are at the core of the company’s business. That is, to lead a successful, best-in-class legal department in and of itself demands a keen awareness of the business on a strategic level.

Similar statements could also be made about a modern security leader. As security departments move from merely being “cost centers” for the enterprise to genuine business partners, security executives can also leverage their expertise to earn a seat at the strategic planning table.

Respected Contributions Add Value

Once you join the inner circle and become one of the “knights” of the strategic planning “roundtable,” the evaluation process doesn’t stop. Being included once does not guarantee a return invitation. Participants are continually judged in formal and informal ways. Planning leaders and facilitators pay close attention to the dynamics in the room. During breaks, participants compare notes, commenting on those who made meaningful contributions and those who did not add any value at all. Who contributed to consensus, and who insisted on his or her own point of view? Who stayed on point, and who introduced meaningless tangents? Who brought novel ideas or yet unspoken issues to the table, and who restated the obvious? And most important, who provided judgment and insight, beyond their area of expertise.

For example, a human resources executive may appropriately question a proposed strategy’s impact on employee engagement or compensation plans, but that can’t be their sole contribution. A security executive might ask how a strategy could impact loss prevention initiatives, but his or her experience must be able to reach beyond the security silo. It is incumbent upon each player in the strategic planning process to participate from outside their professional comfort zone. Trained to distinguish core issues from peripheral concerns and to analyze and solve complex problems, lawyers are particularly well-suited to be meaningful contributors to the strategic discourse, and security leaders can be too

An Optimized Process for Long Term Success

While there is no one-size-fits-all process for strategic planning, there are proven methods that optimize the process. Before a strategic plan can be crafted, it is imperative that there be a comprehensive “SWOT” analysis of the current state of affairs, which includes an examination of the company’s Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats. This analysis must measure the organization’s qualities. What are the predominant traits of the company’s culture? What are the personality types of its leaders? What is its external leadership brand? The general counsel often interacts with all aspects of the organization (and risk management does as well) and therefore can contribute a deep perspective to this assessment. By setting the official title aside and striving to engage far beyond the scope of daily responsibilities, true leadership emerges and contributions become highly valued.

Successful strategic planning requires a deliberative, disciplined process. Fundamentally, strategic planning identifies the company’s mission, vision and core values and uses them as the foundation for specific, measurable and achievable strategic action plans. The critical, initial step of a successful process is development of a mission statement which articulates the organization’s core reason for being and a vision statement guiding where the company will be in the future. The former must be timeless and true, regardless of changes in company tactics or structure. The latter should be aspirational as well as inspirational. A clearly honed strategic vision frequently depends on clearly identifying and reinforcing core values and operating principles. 

Why do so many strategic plans fail?  Because they lack commitment, persistence and follow through, long after the planning is finished. While all strategic plans tend to roll out with a great deal of fanfare, to sustain a strategic plan, you must have a specific roadmap to take it beyond banners and desk toys until it is engrained in the culture of the company. Tasks and responsibilities need to be assigned and the multi-disciplinary leadership team that helped develop the strategy must remain involved. Real steps, altered behavior and hard work must be applied and sustained to allow a strategic plan to come to life.

Measurement is equally crucial. Without accountability, the strategic planning process is an empty exercise. The strategic plan must include quantifiable success indicators with measurable impact on the overall company performance. 

At my company, which employs more than 60,000 security professionals nationwide, the touchstone of our strategic plan is our “Dare to be GREAT” blueprint for success. It clearly sets out our core purpose, core values and leadership and operational “non-negotiables,” among other essential principles. Every employee at every level understands it and knows what is expected of them.

Outstanding companies understand the impact and value of vision and strategic focus. They recognize that a compelling, enduring culture results in fully engaged employees, which translates to outstanding performance. 

Defining a company’s strategic plan requires more than developing lists, goals and desired results. It is about creating a culture that supports what the company believes in and what its people stand for. At the end of the day, a strategic plan, if executed well, will result in the creation of an organizational framework to ensure future success and growth. As general counsel, you are well-positioned to play an essential role in the planning process, to the betterment of the organization and your own career.