After more than 20 years in business, I’ve come to realise that the communication of strategy is of equal importance to the development of strategy.
Yet leaders think nothing of spending six months developing a strategy, only to be surprised when our management teams and employees fail to understand it when we devote as little as six minutes to its explanation.
When I realised that I wasn’t satisfied with the delivery of our strategy in the APAC region, I soon discovered a primary cause: the strategy was sound, but its communication had been mixed. Not only had we not landed the ‘communications killer punch’, we discovered there’s no single ‘killer punch’.
I analysed my own communications performance over the past 18 months. This was confronting! Like many leaders, I assumed that, because I was the leader, my audiences would inevitably care about what I said. I also assumed that communication was mostly about transmitting.
Both assumptions have proved to be flawed. The art and science of communication are complex, demanding attention and time. Both ultimately sit with you, the leader. Your communications professionals are expert counsellors, but you are the person responsible for the success of communicating the company’s strategy.
Here’s what I’ve learned.
Four things that define successful communication
Four things define successful communication. First, the audience needs to hear what’s being said. In practical terms this translates to communicating using a number of channels.
Second, the audience must understand the message. Obvious, but how often as leaders do we assume understanding, rather than checking for understanding? More importantly, does the audience understand what’s expected of them, and do they understand where their contribution fits within the strategy?
Third, buy-in from the audience. Having heard the message in full (many times over), and understood its intent, are they prepared to act, and to join the leadership team in making the strategy work? Without this, the best communication in the world becomes pointless.
Fourth, do they believe in the message? This is different from point three, because belief is intrinsic. If buy-in is rational (“OK, I understand the company’s intent and I’m prepared to play my part”), belief is heartfelt (“OK, I really want to play my part, I know what I need to do, and I’m excited”).
Do they believe in the message? If buy-in is rational, belief is heartfelt.
I estimate that, recently, only 50% of any given audience understood our strategy, and only half of that group believed in the message and our intent. No-one is at fault here, and the strategy is not flawed: leadership communication takes time, demands repetition, and requires consistency. Communication is never a one-off event.
As a test of your own leadership communication effectiveness, add a check-mark on the table below at the point where you think you are in the communication of your organisation’s strategy:
Dialogue includes listening
In leadership communication, dialogue is paramount. You can only communicate effectively if you’re with other people. For example, I spend almost 40% of my time communicating with teams across all countries, much of that around tables over breakfast, lunch, tea or dinner. (You’ll now understand why I’m a fan of Muay Thai!) Some might regard this as arduous and time-consuming. Where, they might ask, is time with customers? That’s a good question, and time with customers is certainly important to me, but if your teams believe in your strategy, they can manage a good deal of the relationships with customers.
It’s important to also listen and act on feedback and suggestions. By this, I don’t mean doing everything the teams suggest, but reflecting on input that has merit, and ensuring that everyone understands that the conversation is worthwhile. Any strategy will benefit from input from the operational front-line, and every strategy will benefit from being heard, understood, bought into and believed in. This can only happen through dialogue, thus I’ve learned to build it into my schedules – it’s powerful and meaningful.
The power of stories
Strategy is abstract and in the IT sector we like jargon, which makes communication doubly difficult. Replace jargon with clarity, and use the power of storytelling to help get your message across.
Here’s an example. Customer centricity is a strategic objective for Lenovo. But what does it actually mean? If I don’t work directly with customers, how does what I do make a contribution? We realised in our early communication that we were paying lip service to something important, and weren’t connecting with our employees, who were struggling to understand the relevance and meaning of the strategy.
Until we told a story.
A contact of mine owns a Lenovo laptop that needed repairing. We’d tripped up in our attentiveness and he asked for my personal intervention. The escalation worked, his personal laptop was replaced, and the attitude and customer focus of the teams that fixed the problem led to a commercial RFP from my contact’s company.
Replace jargon with clarity, and use the power of storytelling to help get your message across.
This was a great commercial result, albeit from a shaky start. But told as a story rather than a briefing at quarter’s-end, I was able to relate the personal connection, the benefits of a prompt response, the positive advocacy effect of a customer pleased with how his pain had been removed, and the direct benefits that flowed through to the commercial sales teams, our support teams, and the company as a whole.
By connecting what at first glance might have been a cautionary tale linked to failed KPIs instead became a story about customer success that everyone could relate to – in any of the 17 countries making up the Lenovo APAC region. This story clearly defined what Customer centricity actually means – putting the customer at the centre.
Go forth and communicate!
We have a responsibility as leaders to communicate effectively, so our organisations deliver to their fullest potential. I think being honest about that responsibility is the first step to being better communicators.
Consider communication an essential skill, and as with any skill, it requires honing. Learn to enjoy and embrace the process: communicating and storytelling is a human trait.
I welcome your thoughts, experience and ideas in the comments below, or please connect with me on Twitter at @Ken_Wong.