Communicating Strategy

It’s going to be hard to execute on the strategy if no one can remember it. A guide to effectively communicating strategy

I have spent the past 23 years as an executive communications consultant.  I have a fairly niche market wherein I provide coaching and training to help people communicate more effectively.  I help my clients articulate their points with clarity and I use my background in theatre to help them speak with presence.  The by-product of this work is that I have spent 23 years listening to my clients talk.  I tried to do the math recently, and my best guesstimate is that I have spent in the realm of 15 – 20,000 hours listening to people talk about their work.  I have seen more PowerPoint presentations than anyone should be subjected to in a lifetime; I have re-read and reworked tens of thousands of e-mails; I have role-played one-on-one conversations; I have worked on answering questions.  My clients have included CEOs and CFOs, managers from a railway company trying to prevent work-crews from beating each other after sharing motel rooms for three weeks, the 63rd richest person on the planet and everything in-between.  Most have been mid-level executives, ranging from Director to SVP.  And as I reflect back on this work, one thing jumps out at me: most organizations do an exceedingly poor job of communicating their strategy.  This is no small thing.  It is very difficult to deliver on a strategy if it isn’t properly communicated within the organization.  In fact, I would argue that successful implementation of strategy depends on exceptional communication.

In this article I am going to start out by describing why it is so important to communicate strategy effectively and where companies go wrong.  If you recognize your company in any of the points I lay out in the first section, you will want to read the second section, which is a step by step process for effectively communicating strategy.  If you already know you have a problem, feel free to skip to the second section!

I. The Problem

The reason effective communication is so important is that a poorly communicated strategy can actually do more harm than good, for three reasons:

  • If employees can’t understand how the strategy relates to their daily lives, it can cause decision-making that runs counter to the strategy.
  • Poor communication of strategy causes a lack of employee engagement.
  • The use of buzzwords causes cynicism and a lack of trust in leadership.

I’m going to unpack each of these issues. 

If employees can’t understand how the strategy relates to their daily lives, it can cause decision-making that runs counter to the strategy

First, the way most companies communicate strategy is at the same time too abstract and too detailed. This causes a lack of clarity around the strategy which can cause poor decision-making.  In my work over the years, I have found that many of my senior clients can’t articulate the strategy.  Many can’t even remember it.  This is a bad place to start.  It gets worse.  When strategy is communicated within the organization, it is often done so with the use of buzzwords (Customer-centricity) and platitudes (People, Process, Technology).  Strategy is then communicated to the organization in large townhalls, usually through the use of PowerPoint.  The presentation starts high-level, with pretty images of happy customers.  This is followed by a holistic picture of how all of the organization’s activities will achieve the goal of the happy customer (usually a slide with a circle, showing how various parts of the business fit into the big picture).  It then systematically breaks down the strategy into ever-increasing detailed descriptions of objectives, priorities, tactics, all the way down to individual programs and projects.  By the end of the presentation, we have moved from the happy customer to a dense slide with multiple colour-coded columns listing individual projects in 8-point font. Unfortunately, it is unlikely anyone in the audience has absorbed much, if any, of the content.

So, let’s look at how this plays out.  Let’s say an organization is moving towards increased automation.  Enormous amounts of capital and resources are being directed to the Business Transformation Initiative (BTI).  But on the ground, the business needs technology solutions to work in the here and now.  There’s stuff that’s not working and the business is asking the technology division for a workaround.  A senior manager needs to decide whether to devote staff time and resources to providing a quick fix workaround for the business, which is cheap, serves the business and can be done quickly.  But doing this pulls resources away from the longer-term automation project and creates complexity in a system they are trying to simplify.  If the strategic direction of automation hasn’t been clearly communicated down to the senior manager level, they may very well decide on the work around, effectively running directly counter to the strategy. 

Poor communication of strategy causes a lack of employee engagement

The internet is full of statistics about how few employees understand the company’s strategy.  Nearly every employee engagement strategy I have seen starts with the need for employees to understand organizational goals.  How can they be engaged if they don’t understand how what they do on a day-to-day basis fits in with what they heard the company’s senior leadership talking about at the townhall? 

Awhile ago, an SVP at a large telecommunications firm asked me to audit one of her monthly departmental meetings.  Every month she asked someone in the organization to do a presentation on a project with strategic significance.  After the meeting, she asked me for my feedback.  I started by telling her that the person in front of me spent the duration of the presentation booking a trip to Florida.  The presentation was boring and ostensibly had nothing to do with them.  That employee would rather have been anywhere else other than sitting there listening to a presentation about a strategic initiative.  Preferably Florida.  Not only did the communication of the strategic initiative fail in its desired effect, it actively caused the employee to become disengaged.

The use of buzzwords causes cynicism and a lack of trust in leadership.

The use of buzzwords in the communication of strategy is rampant.  In some ways, this is understandable, because it can be extremely difficult to communicate high-level ideas that relate to the complexity of running a large business.  The higher up the ideas go, the more abstract the language becomes.  Part of the problem this causes is that the more abstract the language, the more open to interpretation it becomes: ask ten different leaders to define Agile Methodology and you will likely get ten different responses. 

But the bigger issue is that buzzwords breed cynicism.  I was recently conducting a workshop as part of a Leadership Development Program and I referenced cynicism.  I talked about how I have often heard employees say that to get budgetary approval for an ask, all they need to do is use the right buzzwords and they will get their money.  Several people in the program laughed and agreed that this was exactly the case in their organization.  I stopped and pointed out how dumb this comment made their leaders appear.  And this was a Leadership Development Program!  But I understand where this cynicism comes from.  Somewhere in the organization, there is a PowerPoint slide titled Pillars for Strategic Growth, with a big triangle over top of several pillars, underneath which are a whole bunch of buzzwords: People; Culture; Innovation; Collaboration.  I politely suggested that next time, rather than simply parroting the buzzwords, that they try to make the argument that their budgetary ask actually fits within the company’s stated strategy.

II. The Solution

An effective communication strategy needs to be an integral part of any strategy implementation plan.  The following points break down communication of the strategy into two distinct phases: Executive communication of strategy; Rolling out the strategy within the organization.

  1. Initial executive communication of strategy:
    • Effective communication of the strategy starts with clarity;
    • A good articulation of strategy needs to be persuasive rather than directive;
    • The strategy needs to be communicated in simple, clear language;
    • The executives need to be good communicators;
    • Executives need to be singing from the same song book, using consistent language.
  2. Rolling out the strategy within the organization:
    • The strategy needs to be broken down at each subsequent level of the organization into increasingly small chunks;
    • The strategy needs to be constantly reinforced to make it a living/breathing thing;
    • Communication needs to go hand in hand with action;
    • Course corrections need to be communicated honestly and promptly.

Let’s take a deeper look at how to achieve this.

Initial executive communication of strategy

Effective communication of the strategy starts with clarity 

Without clarity, none of the following points matter.  All of the most senior executives need to be able to communicate the strategy in an elevator speech.  When I work with senior executives on strategy, they usually start with a 30-slide Board document and then try to work backwards.  A much better approach is to start with the two-and-a-half-minute version and build out from there.  It is much easier to add detail than it is to extract clarity.  Every executive in the organization needs to be able to communicate the strategy in a manner that the audience walks away thinking, “Well, that makes sense.”  They shouldn’t have to fight to understand it.  And frankly, if an executive can’t communicate the strategy with that degree of clarity, they shouldn’t be presenting it to the board.

A good articulation of strategy needs to be persuasive rather than directive

So often, organizations simply tell their employees what the company is doing and leave out why they are doing it.  Employees need to believe in the strategy if they are going to be excited about it.  This is the first step to creating engagement.  Understanding the why behind the strategy also helps employees make good decisions.  The problem with issuing directives (and then breaking everything down into roles and responsibilities) is that as soon as a situation arises that doesn’t offer a black and white solution, employees don’t have the underlying understanding to be able to respond appropriately.  The world is complex, and the decisions we are presented with usually involve varying shades of grey.  Offering the rationale behind the strategy empowers employees to make decisions that further the strategy.

The strategy needs to be communicated in simple, clear language

If the strategy is going to play a role in the day to day operations of the company, it needs to be simple and clear.  This means removing the buzzwords (innovation; customer-centricity).  It means avoiding anything that ends with -ize (monetize; optimize; operationalize).  It means avoiding corporate-speak (leverage global footprint to drive efficiencies; deliver just in time customer-focused solutions).  Using everyday English and short sentences will make the strategy easy to understand and digestible.  The goal is for everyone in the organization to be able to remember and act on the strategy.

The executives need to be good communicators

I am often asked to help executives develop polish.   Being a good communicator means going beyond being polished.  A good communicator creates a sense of connection with the audience, and this means speaking as a full human being.  In today’s parlance, it means being authentic.  Polish is about the external, whereas the best communicators draw on their full selves, internal and external.  I might be biased, based on what I do for a living, but it is my firm belief that every executive in the organization should be a good communicator.  Executives need to lead and in order to lead they need to communicate.  Communication is a skill, not a personality trait.  Companies need to invest in good communications training and coaching.  It doesn’t matter how pretty the PowerPoint is, if the executives can’t get the audience to listen and care about what they are hearing, the message won’t be received.

Executives need to be singing from the same song book, using consistent language

It doesn’t matter if the employee is in Finance, HR, Engineering, Sales, Marketing or Operations, they need to be hearing the same thing.  How it relates to them in their individual Lines of Business will vary, as it should, but the communication of the overarching strategy should remain consistent across the organization.  This requires getting all of the senior executives together prior to roll-out to discuss how they are going to communicate the strategy within their verticals.  This won’t happen by chance, it needs to be a conscious part of the roll-out and all of the senior executives in the organization need to be on board.

Rolling out the strategy within the organization

The strategy needs to be broken down at each subsequent level of the organization into increasingly small chunks

One of the main challenges in implementation is that the people creating the strategy are typically three or four levels removed the people who are implementing it.  It needs to be broken down level by level so that at each level of the organization, employees understand the strategy, what it means to them and how they can advance it. 

This isn’t simply a matter of cascading the strategy, it involves breaking the high-level strategy down into on-the-ground actions.  I remember working with a VP in technology in a financial services company whose CEO had begun creating video blogs that provided strategic updates.  When the VP received these videos, she would forward them to her direct reports as an FYI.  She described being at an offsite with some of the Directors that reported to her and by chance hearing two of them talking about how the video had nothing to do with them.  She said she was stunned, as these were two of her best Directors, but immediately recognized her mistake: by simply forwarding the video with an FYI, she had missed the opportunity to break down what was important for them.  It would only have taken two or three sentences instead of the FYI.

Engaging multiple layers within the organization needs to part of the communication plan.  Even before the initial roll-out of the strategy, a communication plan needs to involve multiple layers of leadership: SVPs need to work with VPs to ensure they understand the strategy and have a plan for working with their Directors on what it means to them; VPs need to work with their Directors to ensure they understand the strategy and have a plan for working with their direct reports and what it means to them; and so on. 

Once the strategy has been rolled out, each of these levels of executives need to follow up the initial roll-out (typically done in a townhall or offsite) with team meetings that break down the strategy for their teams.  A good idea is to pull two or three slides from the initial presentation that the VPs and Directors will use as the basis for discussion at these meetings.

The strategy needs to be constantly reinforced to make it a living/breathing thing 

Reinforcing the strategy is more than simple repetition.  It involves constantly connecting the dots for their direct reports. It involves looking for real life examples, in meetings, on phone calls, in one-on-ones, to help bring the strategy to life so that it can affect day to day decisions and actions.  At minimum, it means taking those two or three slides from the initial roll-out of the strategy and coming back to them at every monthly meeting.

I remember working with a large company that was implementing SAP enterprise software across the business.  This was a huge undertaking.  At the outset of the project, the company was administering HR services for  more than 150000 employees through the use of Excel spreadsheets.  The project included everything from HR to Point of Sale to Supply Chain.  After the first year, the project was facing massive challenges, and the President of the company hosted a nationwide townhall, announcing that SAP Implementation was now Priority #1.  I happened to be teaching a course on the day of the townhall and one of the participants was a Senior Director of Loss Prevention.  Essentially, he had a lot of security guards in his organization, and quite correctly figured that they would have watched the video of the townhall and thought that SAP had nothing to do with them.  He decided to put together a presentation for his people arguing that their daily actions had a direct impact on SAP.  He argued that SAP is based on quality data and that the enemy of SAP are black holes of data.  He was able to link the townhall back to ensuring the SKUs from recovered items were entered into the system, all the way to opening up the box that has been sitting in the staff room for the past several months and ensuring that any items found were duly recorded.  It was a brilliant example of how a mid-level executive needs to take the high-level strategy and make it tangible.

Leaders within the organization need to be looking for opportunities to reinforce the message.  As obvious as it sounds, you can’t capitalize on a leadership opportunity if you don’t recognize the opportunity.  Leaders need to be looking at all of their communication opportunities, from e-mails to phone calls and meetings, as opportunities to bring the strategy to life.

Communication needs to go hand in hand with action

Of course, it’s not enough to simply communicate the strategy effectively.  Words without action are corrosive and breed distrust.  Employees develop an immunity to the words that carries well into the future – in fact builds, and the people that have been there the longest (and as such are very influential) learn to dismiss any new initiative as flavour of the month.  Leading by example is essential.  But the biggest impact is felt when words and action go hand in hand.  For example, celebrating successes has become a standard part of departmental meetings (or, at least, it should).  This is a perfect opportunity to not just celebrate the success, but to link it back to the strategic objectives.  If someone does something that is directly linked to the strategy, call it out!

Course corrections need to be communicated honestly and promptly

I can’t tell you how many companies I have worked with that trumpet their focus on the customer and then promptly close a call centre.  Or talk about developing a culture of innovation and remove funding from R&D.  Employees watch senior leaders very closely and if they say one thing and appear to do another, trust in leadership will immediately take a hit.  Trust is a very hard thing to develop and can be lost in the blink of an eye.  If the organization is changing directions, communicate it to the employees quickly and honestly!  Or, perhaps a decision appears to run counter to the strategy but is actually consistent: maybe data shows that customers have expressed a desire for self-service solutions and by closing call centres the company is able to redeploy finances that can better serve customer needs.  Regardless of whether it is a true course correction, or just appears to be, senior leadership needs to be constantly communicating with the employees.

Conclusion

Without good communication, even the best strategy implementation plan is susceptible to failure.  Successful implementation of strategy depends on exceptional communication. By weaving communication into the fabric of the implementation plan, the plan is much more likely to succeed.

Regardless of where you are placed within the organization, there are two simple things from this article that you can immediately apply: first, take a look at your company or organizational strategy and develop a simple, clear two-minute elevator pitch; second, start looking at your day to day communications and actively search for opportunities to reinforce the strategy.  You’ll be amazed at what a difference these two simple actions can make.  And if you need help with any of the things discussed in this article, give me a call.  My contact information, along with other articles, is on my website at www.simonheath.ca.