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What Employees Deserve to Hear from the CEOs at Davos

This week the grandees gather in the Alps at the World Economic Forum. The ostensible theme of the meeting at Davos is "Shared Norms for the New Realities," which can mean pretty much whatever you want, but which is supposed to focus discussion around the facts that the world is leaving a financial crisis without having addressed its causes, is facing a sustainability crisis without having agreed what do about it, and is in transition to a new power structure, after four or so Rise-of-the-West centuries of Euro-American dominance, without a clue about how the game should go. Heady stuff at 6,000 feet.

But one group of people won't share in the discussion of shared norms. No-not civil society or entrepreneurs or the poor or the young: Klaus Schwab has done a great job of opening what was once a cozy club of European industrialists, bankers, and ministers. But when your boss goes up the mountain, the one group not there is you-his employees. Sure, some labor leaders attend, but they're representin'. So on their-our-behalf, let me pose three questions that we'd like our bosses to be able to answer when they come down from the mountain:

If you have a growth strategy, we'd like to know what it is. Last week Booz & Company released a survey of about 1,800 executives from industries worldwide. It reveals a remarkable lack of strategic confidence and coherence: 49% said their company had no list of strategic priorities, 43% said their strategy isn't fundamentally differentiated from others', nearly 2 out of 3 say their companies have "too many conflicting priorities." As I wrote earlier, there's more evidence of this strategic dilly-dallying in the fact that companies are sitting on record profits and deep cushions of cash that's paying, like, zero interest. So, boss, what's the plan?

We need to see a connection between the strategy and what we do. Executives rightly worry or complain about the failure to execute a strategy. Maybe the problem is that the strategy isn't conceived in a way that allows people to see their part in it. A strategy isn't worth the PowerPoint it's presented on if it doesn't tell me what I should be doing differently. In that survey we took, only one-third of the executives say there's a clear connection between their strategy and their companies' capabilities. Does your company's HR department have a "competency map"? If so, are the skills it describes specific to how your company creates value, or are they a 50-50 mix of Pablum and horseshit? When a growth strategy talks only about opportunities from products not yet invented or markets not yet entered, there's almost no way for an ordinary person to get engaged in it. The saddest thing about that? There's almost always more headroom for growth in the core business-in which we're already engaged-than in that market over yonder with the oh-so-green grass.

We want to hear less about how and more about what. In the long run, it's the products, stupid. Customers know it. Employees know it. Post-recession, companies should know it, too. I want to see Johnson & Johnson step forthrightly up to its manufacturing problems. Ditto Toyota, which, like J&J, should have known better; Toyota made its name with cars that were good, not flashy. Why in the world did Haagen-Daz, a luxury brand, start selling ice cream in 14-oz. containers in 2009, while making the package look as big as a full pint? In the media business, the evidence I see shows that publishers doing best are those that put content first.

So I want to hear how we're going to succeed by producing something solid. That's why it was refreshing to see GM chief Dan Akerson appoint a new product head-and a woman at that, Mary Barra-after a third of a century during which GM has appeared to look everywhere but its product line for a solution to its problems. There's an adage among lawyers: "If the facts are on your side, pound on the facts. If the law is on your side, pound on the law. If neither the facts nor the law is on your side, pound on the table."

If we have a clearly articulated growth strategy based on delivering something really good to our customers, together with a roadmap that tells us what capabilities we'll need to get there-well, those truly would be shared norms and new realities.

Illustration courtesy flickr user katclay

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