Being a basketball player at a small rural school, it was not uncommon for us to play stronger and more talented teams. While we always had a game plan and thought we could compete, there were times we’d get off to a bad start and feel like we were “on our heels” from the first tip. Knowing our team needed something on which to focus other than the growing difference in the score, our coach would intervene.  At a time out or halftime, the coach would give us a specific goal – one thing on which to focus – and a concrete time frame in which to think about it.  For example: 

“For the next five minutes, don’t worry about the score, just value the basketball. On offense, control the ball movement, be patient, and follow your shot. On defense, keep your hands in the passing lanes, get to the 50/50 balls, and go after every rebound. Remember, value the basketball.”

It wasn’t five different things – it was singular focus that provided context for everything else. Regardless of the ultimate outcome, he knew the focus on that one thing would make us better as a team for the long run, and it did.  

In this time of COVID-19 change and uncertainty, many of our game plans have been significantly disrupted. Businesses and leadership teams find themselves “on their heels” feeling like they are in a constant mode of reaction and defense to the new developments of the day or week.  One strategy to shift from defense to offense is to establish a temporary “rallying cry”.  While I didn’t understand it at the time, that was exactly what our coach did. He provided our team with a common focus toward which we could come together and rally. 

In his book The Advantage, Patrick Lencioni states, “Every organization, if it wants to create a sense of alignment and focus, must have a single top priority within a given period of time.”  As he describes it, this single top priority represents the rallying cry or the thematic goal. While typically, these goals are stated for six to nine months, they can be for shorter time frames.  Lencioni shares examples of teams in times of crisis and other times where having a single point of focus helped them be more effective in three specific areas:

  • Alignment and Focus – Having a single, common goal helped the teams know what was most important and surface what they needed to do to contribute. It also started to break down silos and promote more cross-team communication because the entire team had the same goal. 
  • Decision-making – Particularly in crisis or fast-changing environments, having a rallying cry can help guide leaders in day to day decision-making, resource allocation, and triage. It provides a foundation on which they can base their thinking and critical actions.
  • Team and Affiliation – Communicating around one focus promotes a sense of belonging and togetherness, that we are one team, pulling in the same direction with a common purpose.  Without this focus, teams can feel somewhat disparate, uncertain of whether they are doing the right thing, or individuals might feel disconnected. 

With these benefits, a temporary rallying cry can be a powerful strategy during this time. If you don’t have one, consider establishing one for you and your team for the next 30 to 60 days.

To define a rallying cry or thematic goal for your team, have each of your leadership team members answer these questions:

  1. What is most important for our organization right now?
  2. What could we focus on now that will make us better and make the greatest impact in the next 30 to 60 days?

Discuss your responses and surface the priority.  This is one instance where it is okay if the goal is qualitative.  After you identify the thematic goal, you will also need to answer what it might take to achieve that goal (i.e., defining objectives), and that is where more specificity will start to emerge. Your defining objectives will help provide clarity and define the substance behind the rallying cry. For example, in the midst of COVID-19, a thematic goal for a professional services firm might be:

Thematic Goal/Rallying Cry (Top Priority): Help Our Clients Prosper

Defining Objectives (Components Promoting Clarity):

  • Implement a Client Outreach Program
  • Proactively Communicate Thought Leadership and Resources
  • Adapt and Innovate Our Client Experience
  • Equip the Team to Deliver and Connect Effectively
  • Facilitate Community Learning/Sharing (e.g., our network, industry connections, client leaders, etc.)

The most essential aspect of using this strategy is to ensure the rallying cry or thematic goal is shared by the entire leadership team, regardless of function or area of expertise. It provides clarity to how they should be investing and allocating their time, energy, and resources. 

Whether you are CEO of a large or small organization, a solopreneur, or leader of a functional team, consider what your rallying cry is and share it.  Give your team a positive focus. Provide them a context for making short-term decisions. Help them alleviate some of the uncertainty and know how they can make a difference. And, help them pull together with you toward an outcome that will make your organization and your team better and stronger for what comes next.