When you're running a business, it's understandable that you'd want some hard numbers to verify that you're on the right track. After all, those numbers can keep you grounded when emotions run hot and convince shareholders to get behind you. Metrics aren't everything, though, and there's one huge non-quantifiable element that might be a better indicator of success than anything else.

How in sync is your leadership?

Randy Wootton, CEO of content marketing platform Percolate, had plenty of experience measuring success objectively when he flew planes for the Navy. In that environment, it was always clear what the mission was and whether members of the team had achieved what they set out to do. But when he moved to the corporate world, Wootton got a wakeup call. There wasn't always a clearly defined method for measuring progress, and suddenly the numbers didn't always tell the entire story.

"The single most important measure of success," Wootton now asserts, "is whether your organization--and your leadership--is aligned. [...] Everyone needs to be the same boat, rowing in the same direction with a clear sense for what success looks like."

Getting everybody on the same page

Wootton says he starts every new job by building a system that enables the core team to come up with priorities that will move the company forward. He thinks of this system as a holistic approach to building the entire company. Within Percolate, for instance, he leans on the V2MOM framework from Salesforce--vision, values, methods, obstacles and measures--to create the alignment system. That system, he emphasizes, is not the same as OKR metrics, which by definition have to be measurable and verifiable.

The alignment system, along with a mechanism for ensuring accountability, is required to give workers the understanding of what the company hopes to achieve. It gives them clarity about how success is measured and rewarded, as well. This understanding and clarity directly contributes to the employees' sense of direction, personal purpose and job satisfaction.

"It is a leader's responsibility to articulate a winning strategy, define the structure, outline the roles/responsibilities, detail the systems/processes and tools to enable and then put into the place the incentives programs to drive the behavior to deliver on the strategy," Wootton adds.

In Wootton's view, strategy is a combination of the near-term mission and the long-term vision. And when you're defining the right problem to solve, talking to a lot of people helps you understand what you do differently than everyone else--that is, figure out your "hook"--and get everyone on the same page.

The sheer existence of your alignment system should be obvious if you've created one. But then you have to ask whether or not your managers really are on board with that system--that is, how committed are they to getting on the same page?

"This isn't necessarily a unique problem in business," Wootton says. "For example, it is impossible to know whether you have realized a vision, as a vision statement is, by definition, aspirational. Most companies go through an almost Dilbert-worthy process of creating a set of corporate values and post them on the wall. They use employee engagement surveys and tools like GlassDoor to better understand if their values are resonating. But [...] it is very hard to know quantifiably if an employee is living the values in every interaction. You tend to just know this when you experience the company."

In other words, you have to watch progress and trust your gut, which leans on "truths" you've gathered and internalized over your entire life. There's no clear line on the wall, so you have to infer whether you've hit the mark based on the collective mood and behavior of those in the business. When everybody generally is reaching the same conclusion about the state of alignment through this type of inference, the odds are pretty good that the conclusion is accurate.

Of course, Wootton isn't advocating tossing your metrics completely. It's simply a matter of seeing the value in what's hard to define and using both the quantifiable and non-quantifiable together.

"For me," he says, "it's important to balance the business metrics with mentoring and [to] provide stage-appropriate frameworks/environment for success. If you create a structure where people are accountable for numbers and goals, but also understand they are supported through the work, the odds are you have created a stronger leadership team focused on shared vision and an aligned organization pursuing a common mission."