Strategy execution remains one of the hardest things for a business to accomplish, and a major reason organizations struggle is because communication is often overlooked. Strategic communication is critical to successful transformation and when managed properly, can be an incredibly effective tool for leaders to make the connection from the strategy to how teams can help execute.
Consider this scenario. After many months of strategizing, data crunching, workshops, working with outside consultants, the executive team finally delivers a strategy for the next three years. The team is glad to focus on the daily business again. But as time passes, the resistance of the organization grows and the team faces setbacks. Employees, who haven’t heard from management since the kickoff, begin to doubt the sincerity of leadership. Morale takes a hit and cracks appear in the conviction of the team. Soon most of the strategy is clinically dead. This story is not a business fairy tale but a real-life example.
We present seven tips for leadership teams on effective strategic communication.
1. Take the organization along on your mental journey.
In the above example, management involved the organization at the point when the strategy already had been decided upon. The leadership had gone through a rational and emotional process for months. Each member internalized the choices and accepted the trade-offs. For them it was clear what had to be solved and how, but they forgot to take the organization along on the journey. The rest of the organization was still at the starting point. Leaders thought they were losing momentum, but it never had been there in the first place and couldn’t be fixed by town halls or video conferences. If it takes the executive team months to align, it will take at least a year to align the entire organization. Start strategic communication the minute you start your strategic process. Share what needs fixing, timelines, challenges and opportunities. Slowly feed small decisions you are able to share, so you have them already on board when you present the high-level plan.
2. Tell the story.
It sounds obvious, but if people do not remember what you have communicated, you have achieved nothing. The best way human beings ‘store’ information is with storytelling. Telling stories was the method our ancestors used to transfer information, and modern humans are more likely to remember information if it is served to us in an attractive way, with ample suspense like outside threats (competition) and conflicts (challenges). The main character (the organization) overcomes these challenges by making clever choices. Gradually people need to figure out where they fit into the story, and don’t give them everything on a silver platter. Think of it this way: instead of telling them the answer is six, give them the two plus two plus two. No one is interested in a movie where they already know the plot, and it keeps people hungry for more information.
3. The meaning of communication is the response you get.
Is there a difference between a strategic plan and communication of the strategic plan? Yes, there is. The strategic plan is the sum of rational choices the leadership team takes to execute on their vision and drive the necessary transformation. It is an agreed-upon framework of high-level priorities and principles, followed by an allocation of budgets and resources. The highest goal of strategic communication is simply to evoke the required response from your audience: emotionally and in terms of behavior. You need them to behave in the way your strategy is calling for. It is impossible to be the strategy architect and the storyteller at the same time, so split these responsibilities among different members of the leadership team.
4. Don’t ignore sentiment: Context and history.
Unless you are a startup, your company has a history of successes and failures. Your perception of the company is not guaranteed to be the same as everyone else. While your strategic choices should not be led by internal sentiment, your communications and how you organize your implementation must be. Ignoring your audience’s past experiences, fears or hopes will only lead to rejection. For example, in an acquisition or merger, a common mistake is to overemphasize the new business’s growth to the expense of the existing or putting new employees/younger staff on a pedestal, while making long-serving ‘older’ members feel part of ‘history’. This creates resentment and disengagement in important parts of the organization, and you basically undermine your own strategy.
5. Break through group thinking.
The desire for harmony can result in an irrational or dysfunctional decision-making outcome. It may cause the group to minimize conflict and reach a consensus without critical evaluation. That works fine in the group, but the minute the strategy is introduced outside, employees or customers will chop the plan into pieces. A good solution is to introduce a ‘friendly opposition’ into the team during strategy development and execution. Someone playing an outsider role (representing employees and customers) who challenges the status quo—an independent thinker able to raise controversial issues, offer alternative solutions and spur creativity. It will not only strengthen the strategy, but also produce a much more exciting, relevant, and engaging story.
6. Plan short-term successes for morale.
A company strategy is by definition a long-term strategy. It requires stamina and tenacity to accomplish the desired structural change, which may take years. To maintain morale and trust, it is important to keep the organization’s attention span. Again, it is important to tell a compelling story and like any good thriller, the protagonist moves closer to the ‘whodunnit’ by achieving small successes. One way to accomplish this is to split large projects up in smaller steps and celebrate incremental victories. Even stronger is to deliberately plan investments and successes within a short time and choose projects which make a highly visible impact. Remember, it is not the scale of the projects, but the story you tell with it.
Perhaps the least practiced communication skill by senior leadership is listening. We plan Zoom meetings and townhalls because we feel the urge to communicate something. We rely on middle management, HR or surveys to gather feedback from the organization and hire communications professionals to create communications content. But we often don’t take time to sit down and really listen on a human-to-human level. The simple fact of the matter is that every time we do, we are confronted with the reality of how the organization is thinking about the strategy. Schedule two hours a week with no agenda and just listen. I promise you will hear valuable information from those in the organization tasked with executing the strategy.
Erwin is a highly experienced senior leader, with over 20 years of experience in senior leadership roles in U.S. and German listed companies: Unisys Corporation, Avery Dennison and T-Mobile/ Deutsche Telekom. Erwin’s expertise spans brand positioning, reputation management, public affairs, transformation, employee engagement, stakeholder management, executive communications, marketing and corporate responsibility. Contact Erwin to learn more about how effective communication leads to successful strategy execution.