Apr 25, 2023
Hear why strategy without accountability doesn't work!
I met Aviva Ajmera when she invited me to speak to her groups of CEOs in Kansas City. We hit it right off and had an exceptional time learning about each other and the type of work we love to do to help companies grow. Working with teams, CIOs, CEOs and C-suite level executives, Aviva knows how to bring out the best in them, their collective wisdom and perspective. She loves to build strategic plans but she also knows that unless you create action plans to go with those strategies, they don’t go anywhere, no matter how great they are. They have to be a product of the organization. Our conversation is full of ideas about how you can build a great strategic plan for your organization, and actually convert it into a business plan that works. Listen and learn!
Want a strategic plan that will actually stick? Try these suggestions for ideas:
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Read the transcript of our podcast here
Andi Simon: Welcome to On the Brink With Andi Simon. I'm Andi Simon, your host and your guide. You know, we've done almost 400 On the Brink podcasts, and divide that by 52 weeks, that's a whole lot of years sharing with you ways that you can get off the brink, and soar. My hope, my purpose, my joy is helping you see, feel and think in new ways so that you can have that aha moment when all of a sudden your brain goes, Oh, that's what I can do.
So I find people who can help you do just that. And I'm looking at a beautiful woman today who I met in all kinds of ways. Let me introduce her first, and then I'll tell you a little bit about how we got connected and what she's going to talk about today. Aviva Ajemra is a beautiful woman from Kansas City and she helps companies do all kinds of wonderful things to help them grow. She's going to tell you more about her own journey.
But I met her because she invited me out to speak to a group of hers at a CSuite Solutions event, really a marvelous organization, and I spoke to three of them about culture change. I had a great time in Kansas City. And so my reciprocity was to share your thoughts with my audience. And she's laughing. But I do think that we're purpose-driven in the sense of wanting to share what we know with others. And it's more about helping them than it is about profits with them. It's great fun! But all of us are looking for ways to be of help. And that gives us a great kindness. Aviva thank you for being here with me today.
Aviva Ajmera: Thank you for inviting me, Andi. It was such a joy to meet you in person in January. And I felt like we had an immediate connection. So it's really fun to do this at this point in time.
Andi Simon: Well, thank you for sending me all those great pictures. I truly didn't realize that's what I look like. But that looks pretty cool. Tell the listeners about your own journey. Who is Aviva? And how did you arrive at where you are now? So then we can set the stage for the wisdom that you want to share.
Aviva Ajmera: Absolutely, happy to. I can honestly say my journey was very unplanned. I wonder, is it serendipity? I believe in serendipity. Is it destiny? I believe in karma and destiny. But I also believe in a plan. I am a very planned person. I think it was really the combination of all three that got me to where I am today.
When I think about how I started as a painfully shy first generation Indian girl to immigrant parents growing up in upstate New York. I went to college in Texas. That was a big leap, a big step forward. I ended up living in Minneapolis, joining a consulting firm, moving to Kansas City, which was never on my radar growing up in New York. Back in 1995, I joined Hallmark Cards, and then I left corporate without a job to go to when I was there 15 years. But I just felt like that's what was right for me.
I ended up joining an international consulting firm. I was a partner there for seven years. And I was traveling all the time, and my little girl was growing up. And that's how I decided to start SoLVE, my strategic consulting firm here in Kansas City. And then this year, I started my new firm, the one that you came to speak to, called C-Suite Success. So I never would have thought growing up the way I did, super shy, really kind of sheltered, that I would now be the CEO of two companies in the belly button of America.
Andi Simon: Well, you know, I'm a big believer in serendipity. And I do think there's a path. I just don't know what the next step on that path is. And we are all talking about what's next because we've reached that phase where we're pretty successful. And we sort of know who we are. And the journey has so many interesting uncertainties to it and is full of challenges. But you're an important part because you've been inside a company helping it grow. You've been a consultant helping companies grow.
You now have your own business, helping them grow. And watching you lead these groups that I spoke to, they have a magic relationship with you. They listen, and they're learning at the same time. So share with us some of the wisdom of what you learned as you went through this, and some of the things that you're doing now to help companies see, feel and think in new ways, because you have that magic.
Aviva Ajmera: Oh, well, thank you so much. That means a lot coming from you because I know you work with hundreds and hundreds of companies. Well, really candidly growing up, my mom and dad were amazing parents but as immigrants, they didn't grow up in the US. So I didn't have the benefit of a lot of role models as I was growing up or approaching college, thinking about career, grad school, etc.
And what I found is that I was really blessed. I had so many mentors, before the word mentor even was like a word that got used in corporate America all the time. And I feel like they always saw something in me that I did not yet see in myself. And I'm so grateful for that. So as I work with teams, CIOs, CEOs, C-suite level people, and then usually their next one or two levels down in my consulting practice, my goal is always to bring out the best in them, to bring out that collective wisdom and that collective perspective.
Because I work with them, I'm building strategic plans. And I know that strategic plans don't work when only the leader has created the plan, or heaven forbid, the consultant has created the plan. It has to be a product of the organization. And as I do that, and I spend time with clients, trying to figure out how to bring out the best in them, what I realized is a bit of a shift that's happened in corporate America in the last, I would say, easily 10 years, but maybe even it goes back further.
I was lucky in that when I started out at Accenture, they had and still do, a really robust training and development plan. Most companies don't have that anymore. And they don't have it because they can't afford it. And it's definitely been a common line item to cut out over the last four to five years. And so what we've done with C-Suite Success is bring together all of these eager, high potential people wanting to grow, wanting to invest in themselves and create cohorts.
So we have a CEO cohort, we have a C-suite cohort, and then we've got that next level, all of which want to continuously learn, continuously improve, and they need a safe place to come and talk, to come and recharge, and to be able to learn together and talk about applications for each of their companies.
The folks in our groups cross any industry. You can imagine: profit, nonprofit, family owned, public, everything, because what we find is that issues are the same. And the ways that people want to grow and develop professionally, it doesn't matter what kind of company you're in, it's all pretty common. And so that's what I would call the magic of how our groups work together.
Andi Simon: You know, magic is interesting, because the trust factor is high. And when they come in there, they almost have to shed their fear of failure, or not looking professional, or being the CEO or the C-suite leader that is expected among their peers. I mean, I've done Vistage now for years. I think I've done 500 Vistage talks and I'm always fascinated by the CEO. For those of you who don't know what Vistage is, it's an organization that brings in speakers, like myself, to introduce ideas to their members.
And, it becomes an interesting way of getting a feel for what's happening. When I went to Aviva’s group, a wonderful group, different people and they were all coming in, shedding their concerns about who they were and what they did. And they came in sort of open-minded to see what somebody else could share with them and help them grow. And growing is very hard when you hit a certain point. So as you're working with them, and even problem solving, is there some approach that I heard you say? Are there certain approaches you take, for example, to build a strategy with a client that helps them see it themselves?
Aviva Ajmera: Yes, it's multi-step. And it happens over time, because it is at the core, what you said, it's a relationship. So with consulting engagements, the very first thing I do is send a survey out. It's all open-ended questions. And then we talk on the phone, then I interview them. And we usually spend an hour on the phone. So I work very hard to create a unique one-on-one relationship with every single member of the strategic planning team. And oftentimes, some other key stakeholders; sometimes it's board members, sometimes it's other people that aren't on the team, but they are big influencers in the organization.
And we talk a lot about trust. And it's actually one of the principles when I kick off an engagement in my consulting firm. We talk about how we're going to work together and we talk about how when we are together, it is a safe place. There's no judgment, and we're going to have trust. Now that doesn't mean you have to agree. It just means you have to be comfortable. enough and feel safe enough that whatever's on your mind, regardless of what your level is in the organization, we want you to contribute because we think your opinions are important, which is why we've asked you to be on a team.
With C-Suite Success, it's a little different because we've got folks from different companies. With our CEO group, they all represent individual companies. But we have an interesting secondary dynamic in our C-suite group. And in our key leader group, which is, sometimes we have two folks from the same company in our group. And candidly, I was really curious to see how that would go. Would they feel like they couldn't open up because of somebody else in the company that's listening. And in fact, what I found was the exact opposite. They felt a sense of partnership and a camaraderie because they had somebody that was hearing them express a challenge or an issue that they had, and the other person genuinely wanted to help them.
We had one meeting where someone was sharing that she felt very frustrated, because she felt her role could have a wider dimension than the leadership was allowing her to have. And the other person from the company in that group said, it makes me really sad that you feel like that and I want to figure out what I can do to help you not feel like that. And, I mean, I was just watching it happen. And I was like, Oh, I love this so much.
Andi Simon: But to your point, people within a company play their roles, but don't have time to be honest with each other. Or, she wasn't even looking for help, she was just articulating her feelings. And being who she was, she was ready to see it through a fresh lens, which was beautiful.
But it's interesting to watch people because people are so challenging. I mean, they're trying to do a good job, and they don't know: I can't do more, I can't hang in there, and then I get shut down.
When you're working on the strategy stuff, you said something important, that is, you help turn it into an execution. We do a lot of Blue Ocean Strategy work. And the hardest part is to turn a great idea into an innovation. You know, we often said our tagline is From observation to innovation because it's hard to see it. And then once you see it, what are you going to do with it? What kind of tools can our listeners learn from you about turning those ideas, a strategy, into an implementation that actually works? Any thoughts?
Aviva Ajmera: So many thoughts. And you are speaking my love language when you talk about strategy and implementation. So you know, anytime I talk to a group, and frankly, when they're interviewing me, and I am also interviewing them to make sure it's a good fit, I ask them about previous strategic plans. What did they like? What did they not like? What worked, what didn't work? A common theme of what didn't work is, We built this plan, then nothing happened.
If I have a client that experiences that with me facilitating the work, that means I have failed. That is absolutely not what I want to do. So when I work with a client, I make it very clear, we'll build you a strategic plan, but the more important work is actually the implementation plan. And the key aspect to the implementation plan is accountability. So for every single initiative, you might have 30 initiatives under a particular strategy. You have a timeline around it, you have metrics around it, and you have a person that is in charge of making sure it gets done. And then follow up.
I tell them, even when we create the plan, it's based on what we know. We create three year strategic plans, but we're doing it in the current-state timeline where you are going to live the plan. So I teach them, it's a living, breathing document, really like our journey in life is, right? Things are going to change but we are building the best plan we can with what we know today.
But I teach them how to think about how you adjust. And I really encourage them to do monthly check-ins, and my most successful clients do that. They check in every single month. That way things don't slip. If people are struggling, they can share it. They can talk about what adjustments do we need to make, and then we continue to move forward toward their big three year plan goals.
Andi Simon: It's always been interesting to me how even when I was an executive in banks, I was an executive in three banks, and we would build the strategy. And yet the idea that this was business every day was sort of an anathema to the folks who somehow knew they had to create this thing. And it was done. And then we could go back to doing our job. And the two were so disconnected that I watched and I wondered, what is this that we're trying to do, this thing called strategy?
And then the other part that was disconnected was the goal of all of this, so we had a strategy to get someplace. The daily business was different from what was in the strategy. And some goals that we were trying to get to, that was sort of elusive at the end. How interesting, how business was run. And now that's unacceptable. You can't do that. Let's start backwards. Where do you go? I had one healthcare client with a 44-page plan, can you believe that?
Aviva Ajmera: Oh, that just sounds painful to me. That's never going to happen. And then my 15 years at Hallmark Cards, and I am grateful for my career there. I grew and just bloomed while I was at Hallmark. But I remember every single year, we had a different senior manager in charge of leading strategic planning. Well, guess what that means: every single year, the format of strategic planning is different.
And I remember when I was young, like late 20s, coming out of grad school, the concept of a strategic plan. I'm so excited about it, right? Like I learned how to do that when I was in grad school. When I came to the company, when you're 27 years old, and you're an individual contributor, you're not involved in the strategic plan at all. You are given these big corporate goals, and you sit there, I did anyways, and I would say, where am I going to fit in? The strategies are way bigger than my sphere of influence. The goals are numbers I don't control. I don't have visibility so I get maybe a twice a year update, maybe an annual update.
And so the way I do plans is just really different. And I tell the organization as we're building it, and then I tell them as we're recapping it: everyone in the organization should be able to see their role in the plan. And if they don't, that means we didn't build the plan properly. So it is a little bit of a pressure test even as we're building the implementation plan. That doesn't mean every single person has something they're accountable for, but that they should at least be on a team that is accountable for a particular initiative.
Andi Simon: One thing that we've begun over the years to realize is that you also have to tell people what they're going to stop or not do. Those are often fascinating to me, because they'll say, Of course, we can stop that. And then you go observe, being the anthropologist I am, I don't even ask them, I go watch, and I watch the thing they're going to stop is the thing they do every day.
Habits are so powerful that they know how to do it so well, even if it has no value anymore. And I had one client and I said to him, You know your clients don't need this. "That's what we do," he said. I said, "But they told me what you're doing. So how do we change this so it fits where you're going, as opposed to where you have been hard to let go?" Have you found the same?
Aviva Ajmera: Absolutely, absolutely. It's exactly what you're saying. It's habit. And it's comfort. That doesn't mean that it's right, it doesn't mean that it was wrong to do it when you started doing it. But just as all things evolve, it might not be the right fit for where the company is now, for where their clients or their customers are today.
So how do you break that habit? You make a list. You make a list of what's new in the plan. Whate are you going to start doing? What are you going to stop doing, and you syndicate it. You syndicate it with the board. You syndicate it with the senior leadership, and you syndicate it all the way through the company.
Now we know behaviors take time to change so we have to hold each other accountable. And there are fun little things you can do, you know, awards of the month, that focus on the change that you're trying to create, or other types of recognition that keep it alive, in the energy, in the culture of the company, to make sure that you're reinforcing. Not only are we articulating what we want to change, but we are reinforcing it by recognizing the new changes and the behaviors, and then soon they become a part.
Andi Simon: But to emphasize this with our audience, the brain remembers what you celebrate. And so if you really want that person to stop, we're not even going to stop smoking, or just try doing procedures that are already automated that they're doing with paper again. But anything that you really want to demonstrate, you record. Recognize the effort that went into changing, it's celebrated. Because the brains of the people you're working with will remember what you praised. And if you don't, it won't think it's important. And those are not incidentals, it's not sort of an afterthought. Or even a thank you note, a little act of gratitude, can have a huge opportunity cost for you.
As somebody will say, Oh, this matters, I didn't know. And the other part is, I love teaming people up. Because if you can team them up, there's another person who's watching. And then if they trust each other, then they can talk to each other. Like those two people in your C-suite program. It's interesting, we do things for others and with others, but on our own, we go back to what we've always done. And we're not happy to be asked to change it. Change is painful. It's really hard.
Aviva Ajmera: Yeah, it's so true. I mean, you taught us the idea of a funeral. And I'll tell you, all three groups were like, We love that idea. One of the things I do with the groups is, every month, I ask them to tell us about what you've implemented from the last speaker that you heard. And then I also do it quarterly as a way to try to reinforce reminders to take this great learning that you got from spending a day with me and a speaker, and make sure that you're actually implementing and embedding it in the organization.
Another simple technique for a company, a lot of times, I will ask them to send me a year's worth of agendas, send me your agenda. I want to see what you talk about. Is your agenda just an update, or are you literally having a discussion? And if you've got new behavior that you're trying to instill, where are you giving it some time. It could be a stand-up meeting, it could be a formal meeting, it could be a newsletter, it could be anything, but where are you recognizing and calling out these new behaviors that we're wanting to encourage in an organization.
Andi Simon: The hardest part is to make them feel competent, to take the ideas back and implement them. You know, it's not like learning golf in an hour or two or three with a club in a book and hitting the ball. Although I've done that, and it's not easy to do. But you have the humility that comes with it, the vulnerability of saying to their colleagues, you know, this is something that I heard and I really think we should try. Let's, you know, we don't have to fail or not, let's not fear failure, let's try.
And I share that with our listeners, because you need a language and a conversation for implementing the new, when your folks are going to immediately walk away and resist you, pretending you didn't say the words you just did. And they don't even know that their brains are fighting it.
Aviva Ajmera: Absolutely, absolutely. Another technique I've learned over the years is something I'll call converge and diverge. So the converging is listening to what the change needs to be. The diverging is breaking into small groups and brainstorming, coming up with ideas. And then you come together again, and you share those ideas. So it gives everything a little extra juice, a little extra validation. And many times when we do that, in our groups, one group will say, Ooh, I really like that. Can I borrow that? I'm going to have that list too. And it's really fun seeing when energy builds because they're learning from one another.
Andi Simon: It's interesting, I have two, three leadership academies: one four years, one three years, one five years, and the interaction is less about me than it's about them and what they can learn from each other. To your point: only about having time to think out loud, and to be able to share ideas that are sitting there and bubbling up but don't have a place to come through. And always there are great ideas coming often down in the trenches, because they're closest to the work being done.
But even all the way across the whole thing, it's fun to watch people ideate all of a sudden. They go, Ah, you know, I can do that. And all of a sudden it becomes part of their story, not someone else's. I love it.
So my question for you, my podcast has been ranked among the top 10 futurists podcasts, but I didn't know I was a futurist. So I asked my listeners, my viewers, pardon my interviewees to share with our viewers. What do you see coming? Anything in particular, as you're working with both your customers, your clients, your members of your group? Are there key themes that you hear particularly as we're coming out of the pandemic? What's coming?
Aviva Ajmera: A few common themes. The first one that came to mind was health. So self-health, mental health, it could be relationship health. I think for me, I know the pandemic, because it was so abrupt and everything kind of stopped. I mean, my clients put work on hold for nine months until we realized this wasn't going away. We needed to adapt and figure out how to do our work in a virtual way. They work with me, not their businesses, but I think it gave us all that time that we have to live our life in a way that naturally feels good to us, whether that's how you start your day, what you eat, exercise, who you talk to, all of that.
And then as we now create this new normal and kind of reenter, nothing is 100% like it was prior to March of 2020. It's all an adapted version of it. And I think most of us are still figuring it out. Because those norms are gone. So we're creating new norms. So an openness for employers to understand that their employees are seeking that, and there's no right answer. I really feel like the right answer is just talking to your employees.
The other one that I see across all industries, and even with my angel investing, really is the idea of partnership. So you might call it networks. You might call it mentors. You might call it really just business model partnerships. More and more, I see companies recognizing for them to reach their fullest potential, having strategic partnerships is how they really will soar. Because it's really hard. Just like any one person cannot be an expert in every single thing called life, any one company cannot necessarily be the expert at every single thing they need for their company to live its fullest potential. And that's where I see a lot of partnerships coming into play.
Andi Simon: I think of the well-being and of all kinds of healthcare, behavioral health, mental health, family health, I mean, the health. You know, the tragedy of the pandemic, truly was a tragedy, but it's opened us up to every day is a gift. How will we live it? And then how do we find the benefits of our days?
But the other part is this partnership concept. Uber has shown us you don't need to own everything. And I do think that once you take a look at what Airbnb or Uber or others have done, you realize that the market has lots of ways of solving a problem.
And I had one client and I said, you know there are lots of ways of solving your situation. You don't have to have it all. And who could you connect people with? Because they're asking you for things and you say we don't do that. Well, you don't need to do that. But that's a recurring theme. I get it. But you know, in the past, I said yes, but that kind of strategy works, then maybe today's strategy isn't about we don't do it. But how can we help you to different conversations?
Aviva Ajmera: Right, exactly. How can we facilitate it? So I think of two words that come to mind. One is insights. So what are those customers or those client insights? What need is needing to be met? And then the other word is ecosystem. And I feel as though that word has really evolved and grown over the last, I'll say, five to seven years in a way. I've never seen it happen before. And I see it in my clients. But I also see it in my startup companies that my angel invests in: the idea of ecosystems, supporting one another is so incredibly powerful.
You kind of conquer, you help each other conquer those learning curves faster because I've already figured that out, or I've already looked into that and let me share it with you. So back to that partnership word versus holding everything close to the vest and it's like, No, I paid my dues. I figured it out. You could figure it out on your own. I see that going away.
Now I will say, I live in the Midwest, and I know that the coasts and the cultures are a little bit different. But I see it on the coasts as well. I really see it all over the world as I have friends and family that live all over the world. So I think there's a synergy that comes from ecosystems and partnerships where it clearly can be a win-win for the people working together.
Andi Simon: Well, in some ways, it is a reflection of us coming to terms with, I don't need to do it all, and we can help each other. And we both can prosper much more easily then being proprietary, even intellectual property. People say, can I access your stuff? I give it to you, you know, enjoy it, use it, let me know how I can help. And it becomes a very different dialogue, and I'm going to protect it and hold it, and you got to pay for it, or you've got to do something with it.
It's a time when I think the multiplier is really more interesting than the protector of the isolated. Because, you know, I met one person and the work I was doing, he had 98% of the market share for his particular product. And I said, So what does that do for you if you own the market? It's a market growing as a market shrinking, what else can you do for them?
And the reason I love thinking out loud, like you and I are doing, is, what else can we do? Where are their unmet needs? And how can we be a value beyond simply the thing that we do? It's no longer a product to sell as the service or solution. So I love to solve. It really captures what we're trying to do with solving each other's problems together. Well, we can talk, you and I for much longer, but I think it's time that we summarize for our listeners, one, two or three things that you don't want them to forget. I made a bunch of notes myself, what are some of your takeaways?
Aviva Ajmera: You know, I think I mentioned to you, my daughter is 21. And she's graduating college this year. I'll be 55 this year. It's interesting that I am almost 55 talking to my 21 year old daughter. What I wish someone had said to me at that age causes you to reflect on your life. Like, where would you have taken bigger chances?
When I think about three lasting thoughts, the first one is about network. And network sometimes is a scary word. Use whatever word you want. It could be ecosystem, it could be other people, you know, whatever. But it's about not only building your own, but also realizing your friends' network can be your network, your family's network can be your network. And as you think about your mentors, I would say have lots of them. You're going to have mentors at different stages of your life for different reasons in your life, just like all of your friends, just think big. Think wide.
The other thing is, I told you, I love plans. So yes, have a plan. But be willing to change that plan. Because you have no idea how once you start living the plan, how your thoughts and ideologies might change a little bit, how your experiences will influence what you value, and what is most important. And part of that is being a continuous learner. It does not matter how old you are. We just learned how to play pickleball. I'm learning things in pickleball that I can apply to my business life. Well, it's a really wonderful thing.
And then the last thing is really what you asked me about as far as big changes that I'm seeing. It's about taking care of yourself, because for those of us, which is most of us that are high achievement oriented, right, very goal oriented, you will acquire those titles and that monetary status, you'll acquire it, just assume that but none of it matters if you don't have your health. If you don't have healthy relationships, people in your life that you can enjoy that success with and know that your definition for success might change when it comes to material acquisitions, but taking care of yourself is always the same. Do I feel good every day? Am I happy every day? Am I healthy enough to go enjoy what it is? I've said in my life, I want to go try that or I want to go visit there, or whatever the adventure is for you.
Andi Simon: You know, Aviva, I am going to a pickleball benefit, not too many weekends from now, and I said, How do you play pickleball? I'm trying to make my golf game at least competent. And I have to learn another game? And maybe because that's where all the action is. Even our golf clubs would open up pickleball courts because that's where all the people are. And they were at a membership meeting and I said pickleball and they looked at me, I said, that's where all the growth is. And it's fast and it's easy, and it's fun. And people come because they enjoy it. And so let's enjoy ourselves. So it's an interesting time. Thank you so much for the conversation. It's been wonderful today. Thank you.
Aviva Ajmera: Thank you, Andi. I always enjoy talking with you and I am very grateful for the opportunity to be on your podcast.
Andi Simon: Well I just love sharing wonderful people like yourself. It's so much fun to talk about what I love to talk about, which is strategy and how to grow people and their companies so they can live happily ever after. It's not a fairy tale. And one thing I want to make sure you understand is, hope is not a strategy. So I have a hunch Aviva would agree with me. Every time they tell me the inbox, or word of mouth, I just want to say, you hope somebody finds you and somebody will do business with you. But that's not a good strategy.
So, for all of my listeners, thank you for coming. It's always fun. I love sharing and this is a great opportunity for me to share with you a little of our thoughts, lots of good people who want to help you see, feel and think in new ways. Don't forget my books are available on Amazon. My new book comes out in September of 2023. It's called Women Meaning Business, and in it are 101 women trailblazers with great wisdom to share with you. I can't wait to show it to you. It's almost coming. But right now, I want you to remember that I love your emails, send them to info@Andisimon.com. That comes right to me and Simonassociates.net is on a new website and it's all so much fun. Thanks Aviva. I'm going to say goodbye. Take care. Bye bye now. Bye bye.