What is it you really want out of life? We have worked with countless organizations to help them build strategic plans for their businesses, and that is actually the first thing we ask when we sit down with the leadership team to create a vision for the company’s future.

Not what products or services do you want to roll out, not what markets do you want to enter, not what companies do you want to buy, not what revenue targets do you want to achieve. Rather, what are your personal goals?

This is not some kind of icebreaker question designed to get everyone in the meeting loosened up and friendly. It is central to a strategic planning approach we have developed that is grounded in the dovetailing of personal and business goals. Our approach emerged as a result of a recurring observation we had in our dealings with clients over the years: Most business leaders spend too much time working in the business, not on the business.

The reason was that their business goals in no way allowed them to meet personal goals — instead, they existed in a vacuum. This state of affairs goes a long way toward explaining why many business leaders we spoke with seemed discontented. Their businesses weren’t helping them to realize their dreams: They were working for the business, but the business wasn’t working for them.

When companies can turn this around, things start to happen. Take the example of a large real estate investment firm that has been applying our process for a number of years now. As part of their planning process, they ask not only their senior-level executives but also lower levels of employees about their personal goals. Management is highly attuned to situations where there appears to be a disconnect, and will frequently intervene to make course corrections. In one instance, a mid-level manager was clearly unhappy with his current work situation. His superiors, who were committed to retaining this individual, came up with the perfect dovetailing solution: They asked him to move to the West Coast, which is where he aspired to be living, and open up a satellite office to scout for real estate opportunities. That office is now thriving, and headed by a very happy and committed employee.

 

THE MYTH OF WORK-LIFE BALANCE

The fact is, we spend way too much of our lives working for working not to work.

Many consultants and business thinkers have proposed that the solution to this tendency for work to consume a growing number of our waking hours is “work-life balance.” The concept of work-life balance is predicated on the notion of compartmentalization — that when we leave work to focus on “life,” we turn work off like a faucet. That may have been possible prior to the advent of the Internet and cell phones, but today it is a pipe dream. We live in a 24/7 world, and for the Millennial generation that will soon constitute the bulk of the workforce, the melding of work and personal life is a completely natural way to live.

So when it comes to work-life balance, we say “not likely.” That’s why the idea of dovetailing business and personal aspirations is so important: The two need to be compatible, rather than constantly at war with each other. When senior executives and business owners can get their business and personal goals pointing in the same direction, they’ve hit a sweet spot.

 

THE DIFFICULT QUESTIONS

Let’s face it: Digging into all the personal stuff is not always easy. It can take business leaders out of their comfort zones — way out. But unless they can openly discuss their personal goals, they will never reach the point of dovetailing them with business goals. To get these important conversations started, it’s essential that they be able to take place in a safe, non-threatening environment — preferably somewhere off-site, away from the day-to-day distractions of the business. Ultimately, this helps business leaders develop a habit of addressing personal issues head-on so that they can build a realistic plan for achieving both sets of goals.

We’ve seen the power of dovetailing dozens of times. On one occasion, we were consulting with a large hospital network. Most groups within the organization were working relatively smoothly; the one exception was the nursing staff, which had both high turnover and low job satisfaction. When we brought the nursing team together with the hospital’s leadership, it became apparent that the nurses did not feel they had a stake in how their group was run and who was chosen to run it. So the hospital made a dramatic dovetailing move: They created a methodology that allowed nursing staff to select their own leaders. The result? Turnover declined, productivity increased, and job satisfaction shot up. With skin in the game, the nurses had a commitment to seeing their leaders succeed.

By bringing everyone’s personal goals into the planning process, organizations are able to command “buy-in on steroids.” When that kind of alignment can be achieved, the results can be truly startling.

 

Jay Nisberg is a consultant to the accounting profession, and Gary Shamis is the national strategy and growth advisor at BDO USA, and the former managing director of a Top 100 Firm. They are the creators of the “Stratagem” approach to strategic planning, and authors of Stratagem: Simple, Effective Strategic Planning for Your Business and Your Life.

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