What is the state of your organization?


peter johnsonEach new year brings a fresh chance to ascertain the state of our organizations. While I am a huge proponent of annual strategic planning sessions, I also feel that many leaders overlook a critical step before such planning can effectively take place – addressing the state of the organization.

This is the ideal time for the leader to give his or her vision of the future before the organization’s board and management team meet to review last year’s successes and challenges, and to set goals for the future.

Of course, the best example would be the annual State of the Union address by the president of the United States. In January of most years, many of us can be found gathering around the television to watch the president deliver his annual address. In this year’s speech President Obama chose to “focus less on a checklist of proposals and focus more on the values at stake in the choices before us” as he discussed topics such as the economy, higher education, terrorism and foreign policy.

The “State of the Union” is actually a constitutional requirement as laid out in Article II, Section 3 of the U.S. Constitution, requiring the president to periodically give Congress information on the state of the union and recommend any measures he believes are necessary and expedient. (Those founding fathers were pretty smart guys.)

George Washington delivered the first State of the Union in person. However, Thomas Jefferson felt it was better to provide the State of the Union in a written report because he didn’t it want it to be perceived as a “speech from the Throne.” For the next 112 years the commander-in-chief would give his vision in writing.

Woodrow Wilson understood the importance of laying out the future direction of our country in a way that can only be accomplished in a face-to-face meeting. Of course there was no television back then, so he could only directly reach the elected folks in Washington.

President Harry S. Truman was the first to give the State of the Union speech on television. Now each president uses the event to share his vision, create passion and build support from not only their constituents but other stakeholders around the world.

Some states require that the governor report to the legislature each calendar year on the “state of the state.” Additionally, over the past couple of decades many cities have adopted “state of the city” addresses. It seems that leaders are understanding the importance of a pulpit to share the legacy of the past and aspirations for the future with specific strategies laid out over the short term. Furthermore this is an opportunity for a leader to share publicly or privately the successes and failures of the past, as well as the challenges and opportunities of the future. It’s an effective way to lay it all out on the table and get buy-in from stakeholders.

State of the Union addresses always have a positive overtone to them. After all, who wants to follow a doom-and-gloom leader? A good address inspires us to reach higher than we think is possible and creates a clear vision of the path ahead. A good address incorporates a story that crystallizes, personalizes and summarizes the key points. It paints the picture of the message.

I work with many organizations where the CEO, president, executive director or other key leader annually gives a state of the organization address as the precursor to strategic planning sessions. It sets the tone and focus, and helps build the parameters for discussion. How have we done in the past year in accomplishing our SMART goals? Where are we going in the future? How are we going to get there? What do we need to do to be successful? What are the challenges and opportunities facing us? Why is it important that we go down this road?

I would challenge every leader to prepare a state of the organization (department, office, etc.) address even if they never stand at a podium and speak to their stakeholders. It’s an opportunity for you as a leader to impact the present and future of your organization in a powerful way.


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