Why Communicating your Strategy isn’t Enough

Why Communicating your Strategy isn’t Enough

According to a recent survey of more than 400 global CEOs, executional excellence topped the list of some 80 issues that are facing corporate leaders in Asia, Europe and the United States.  Execution is tough work.  Studies have found a high two-thirds to three-quarters of large companies fail to implement their strategies.

From my work with CEOs and executive team members, I find that there tend to be two trains of though on how to communicate strategy – repeat the message often or only mention it once or twice, for fear of boring people.

The truth is both these responses are wrong.  Let me tell you why.

Blame the Survival Brain

Our brain is constantly processing millions of pieces of information at a given second.  To avoid becoming overloaded, it distorts and deletes most messages that it believes aren’t relevant.  Every day your workforce is bombarded with hundreds, if not thousands of messages, all while handling any personal issues that might have cropped up.  Their brains are constantly ignoring information.  That’s why communication specialists aim to get awareness of their message by at least 6-8 times, before it is expected that it is understood, let alone remembered.

It’s important to repeat your message – as Jack Welch the former CEO and Chairman of GE said “you should repeat your message 1,000 times and focus on simplicity, consistency, and repetition.”

On the other hand, there is also some truth to people’s automatic resistance to repeating their message ad nauseum.  If you’re repeating an unclear, confusing message, you will incite nausea, and frustration, within your own workforce.

Yet, what both these viewpoints do is confuse communicating information as equalling understanding.

Nancy Koehn from the Harvard Business School has stated that what we need are more leaders who impart wisdom.  She argues:

“Information does not equal knowledge and knowledge does not equal understanding and understanding does not equal wisdom.”

Employees are drowning in information, but are crying out for wisdom.  They are effectively stuck in the forest, but they can’t see it for the trees.  They want leaders who can paint a vivid picture of the future and help them see how to get there.  Yet, without people understanding why they need to follow a strategy and how it relates to them personally, and the organisation, time and effort is wasted on meaningless strategies and goals.

According to Donald Sull’s research in the March issue of HBR, almost half of top executives cannot connect the dots between their company’s strategic priorities; and two out of three middle managers say they simply do not understand their strategic direction.

In Sull’s research, a CEO was pleased when she discovered in a staff survey that 84% of all employees agreed with the statement “I am clear on our organisation’s top priorities.”

However, when more granular information was obtained and employees were asked to describe the company’s strategy or list the top five strategic priorities – they choked.  Less than one-third could recall even two priorities.  In another research study, only 55% of the middle managers surveyed were able to name even one of their company’s top five priorities.

Even more alarmingly, is that while strategic objectives are often poorly understood, they often seem unrelated to one another and disconnected from the overarching strategy.  In the same study, fewer than one-third of senior executives’ direct reports clearly understood the connections between corporate priorities, plummeting to a meagre 16% for frontline supervisors and team leaders.

Why is Strategy Communication not About Understanding?

One of the issues is that to measure the success of communication, experienced leaders often look at metrics on the number of times messages were repeated.  While it is critical that important strategy messages are repeated, it’s even more critical that they are measured for understanding.  After all, what we can believe is easy to understand might not be the case for others.

“Seek first to understand, then to be understood.”  Stephen Covey

Think of how parents often bark at their children “Clean your room.”  It never works. Unless, you’ve told your child why it matters and how to do it, they’re unlikely to do it to a high standard (and if you’re my husband, you’re more likely to think it means taking things off the floor and stacking them onto furniture).

Without realising it, leaders can often dilute their message by unintentionally mentioning other side issues or by overwhelming everyone with 11 priorities for another department. Or worse, they change their message.  According to Donald Sull’s research, around nearly one-quarter of middle managers complain when top executives frequently tinker with their messages.

What’s your AURA like?

After many years of writing workplace communication and testing it within organisations, I developed an easy learnable system for leaders to make their strategy messages more meaningful to their workplace.  It’s a simple process that requires all four steps be taken in order for maximum results.  The one caveat though, is that it must be tied to the company’s vision and values.

  1. Attention – The first step is grabbing attention.  Getting people’s attention is like a spark plug that ignites fuel to start an engine. It starts the motor of the brain and it’s the first step in changing behaviour.  Always ensure you have someone’s attention first, before imparting your wisdom.
  2. Understand – If you want to reduce misinterpretation of your strategy messages, then it’s important to work at getting people to understand what the strategy is about and how it relates to their job.  It’s about explaining the why.  One of the techniques is to question people daily on what they know about the strategy, company values and how they are progressing with meeting goals.  It’s not so much about telling people what to do, but empowering them to work it out.  After all, how do you know if people understand you, if you don’t ask and course correct?
  3. Remember -If things are unclear, either at the attention or understanding stages of communication, you won’t be able to get people to remember correctly.  What I like to say is “fuzzy in, fuzzy out.”  Repeat to remember is an important mantra.  But it only works if the message is clear and simple to begin with.
  4. Action – Every communication we make is to elicit action of some type.  Yet, we often forget this and don’t clearly ask for what action we desire.  All important communication needs to be reverse-engineered to work out what action you want people to take and what steps are needed to get there.  I was recently speaking to a company with 6000 staff and while they managed to get attention on a recent communication campaign, they failed to encourage any action.  This is a total failure.  What’s the point of communicating if people aren’t being influenced to change their behaviour?   Companies who get this right, sail through getting their new strategies executed.

Unfortunately, it’s a common confusion that just by supplying people with information, they will know what to do.  If you want your kids to clean their room, show them how to do it first.  Once they have that right, and you’ve questioned them to ensure they understand why, then you can tell them your core message of “Clean your room”, but you might realise it’s better to say “Time to make your room feel better!”

Yet, it’s not all doom and gloom.  The same Donald Sull study found that eight out of ten employees are committed to doing their best to execute the strategy, even when they would like more clarity on what the strategy is.

And that’s just it.  Employees want to know their vision of their company and how to achieve it. They want to be inspired and excited about the future.  But the unfortunate reality is, does your executive team have the skills to communicate it?


Marie-Claire Ross is the Founder and Chief Corporate Catalyst at Trustologie. She is a workplace sociologist, author, speaker and consultant focused on helping leaders put the right processes in place to accelerate trust during change and growth. She does this through strategic diagnostics, roundtables, workshops, coaching and consulting. Marie-Claire is also the author of the number three ranked book on Amazon, Transform your Safety Communication. She has been interviewed on “Technology Behind Business” for Sky Business News and regularly contributes articles to FM Magazine and LogiSYM on company culture. She is also a Graduate of the Company Director’s Course and is on the SME Committee for the Australian Institute of Company Directors.


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