Communicate Strategy for Effect

by Brad Martin + Tom Reeder

Only 27% believe US CEO’s are credible
Edelman 2012 Trust Barometer1

With so little belief in CEO’s these days, we have our work cut out for us when it comes to communicating strategy to the company2.  In fact, sharing strategy is a key message leaders must execute with precision to ensure alignment in the organization3.  Consistency and constancy of message reinforced by informed layers of management and by walk-the-talk actions are critical to buttress the c-suite’s credibility.

Executive credibility is in large part determined by the ability to interact with stakeholders on all issues.  What follows is a discussion of traditional communication methodology.  We find it remarkable so few companies perform even the basics of communication well, with fewer still exhibiting a complete framework.  While we have hinted at emerging social approaches throughout this series, we will leave more advanced discussion of communications to a successive post.

This post wraps-up our strategy-paksm  series with the final key element- traditional communication of strategy.

Communicating strategy for success

 Traditionally, “corporate communication… is to convey key strategic messages internally and externally, and to remove obstacles that prevent the implementation of corporate strategy.” 4

Based on our experience with historic approaches to communication of strategy, we focus heavily on these seven, basic characteristic areas to get it right from the beginning.

  • Broad participation, particularly important lower in the strategy stack and critical to communications of strategy for understanding, alignment and feedback
  • Stakeholder analysis, focusing on What’s In It For Me (WIIFM) including constituents such as employees, suppliers, customers, shareholders, regulators and communities4
  • Integrated messaging, (content, timing and sequencing) with other communications (requires stakeholder analysis, a master calendar; consider both contributors and readers)
  • Memorable copy, including key characteristics: simple, unexpected, concrete, credible, emotional and stories5
  • Two-way, transparent communications, based on known authorship and origin of traditional top-down messages allowing all to understand “why” and all to provide constructive feedback
  • Repetitive and redundant channels of communication, aspiring to the “rule of 7”- communicate key messages seven times in seven different ways, while keeping in mind some channels place different actors in control of the their mindshare6
  • Message life-cycle, “strategy” as we have defined it is more durable, while themes and initiatives may need to cycle more frequently

In fact, many of these elements could be pulled directly from marketing and in particular marketing communications.  Also, social platforms are allowing acceleration and expanded support of communication activities to keep up with the faster clock-speed requiring more rapid frequency of strategy and tactics.

Tactics drive communication of strategy

“…the level of information now available can make ‘transparency’ more of an imperative than a choice”
Professor James Rubin, UVA4

The backbone of communicating strategy are the messages- the tactical “how”- in the communications plan including

  • Target audience- Who are we trying to reach? Within what context?
  • Objective- What are we trying to achieve? E.g., awareness, behavior change
  • Key messages- What are the key messages to be conveyed?
  • Channel/How deliveredWhat channels of communication?  How will messages be delivered?  How will feedback be collected, summarized and acted upon?
  • When deliveredWhat is the timing of each channel?  How does it sequence with other communications?
  • Who from/ Who delivers-  Who is the author of record?  Who will deliver?
  • Other- For example, some communications may warrant specific key performance indicators

Now, let’s touch upon a couple of important tactical success factors related to strategy communications.

Sample communications activities and topics during high levels of organizational change8, like strategy roll-out include, include:

  • Progress reports
  • Feedback on progress
  • Education of supervisory staff
  • Identify and challenge misconceptions
  • Continual reassurance of employees
  • Definition and clarifying roles and expectations

There are significant benefits of diverse change teams charged with creating and executing the communications plan.  For example, Jan Klein, MIT, advocates for the productivity of hybrid resources, “Outsiders-Insiders”9, created by bringing both “types”, insiders and outsiders, onto teams.

“Outsiders”

  • Not blinded by internal cultural assumptions
  • See mismatches between current approaches and root causes of problems
“Insiders”

  • Understand cultural interdependencies
  • Possess organizational credibility
  • Leverage the existing culture

 

Frameworks aid communication thinking

The Framework for Strategic Communication (see graphic) focuses on messages about the strategy to constituents (stakeholders) with formal and informal feedback designed into the process.

While most companies attempt at least initial communication of strategy, we have observed formalized feedback embedded into processes and culture very rarely.  For an example of a formalized feedback process, see a mini-case example (vetting strategy) click here.

Internal communications processes

Regularly left to others, the underlying communication process is often informal and yet provides the platform for meshing all of the internal gears.

Managerial Styles vary from “tell” to persuading individuals to “join” high performing teams and communities of practice.

MIT posits the level of audience involvement correlates closely with the level of author “control”.  Consideration of both axes must influence the management style of communication reflected in the communications plan.

Closing thoughts on communicating strategy

“You only have to go through one or two communication debacles as a senior executive to understand the importance of communication”
Indra Nooyi, Current Chairman and CEO, PepsiCo7

Ask any c-level executive if they have a communications problem and they will undoubtedly say “yes”.  Communication is the basis of how we work together, how we receive and give direction.  Careful planning of strategic direction (vision; what and why), plans (who, how and when) through key messages are critical to achieving our mission.  While the strategy-paksm gives us structure to define our direction, our timing, the who and the where, it is of little value unless everyone who needs to know, knows.  Also, and potentially more importantly, those who have crafted the direction and plans must have jointly pressure tested it with those who will do the work, the heavy lifting of changing their behaviors and the behaviors of others.

We feel this last point, engaging a broader swath of the organization, is easier today than ever because of the rapidly emerging social platforms allowing information to flow more freely from source to target and back again.

“If you get the right people, with the right skills, they can go really fast… so we better make sure they are going really fast in the right direction.”-  NextForge Point of View

This is the fifth and final post in a definitional series on the key elements of strategy.  We have included a few observations along the way on how we have, or might, advance the more traditional concepts.  Collectively, we refer to the grouping of strategic concepts as the strategy-paksm.

 

End notes and references
1 From “2012 Edelman Trust Barometer, Executive Summary”, [internet] [cited 11.19.2012] Available from http://trust.edelman.com/trust-download/executive-summary/, figure 11, CEO Credibility returns to low of 2009, “extremely credible” and “very credible”; informed Publics, pages 35-64
2 See highly referenced scholarly article by Kohut and Segars, “The president’s letter to stockholders,: An examination of corporate communications strategy”, Journal of Business Communication (1992) vol. 29, no. 1, pp. 7-21 [internet] [cited 11.19.2012] Available from http://job.sagepub.com/content/29/1/7The authors identify 6 key themes of CEO/President’s annual-report letter including: environmental factors, growth, operating philosophy, product/market mix, unfavorable financial results and favorable financial results.
3 See Hamm, “The five messages leaders must manage”, Harvard Business Review, (May 2006) reprint R0605G. Note: We believe all of Hamm’s five points are critical strategic matters. We have simplified the list to strategy for clarity.
4 See Rubin, “Introduction to contemporary corporate communication”, Darden Business Publishing (2005), case UV0934
5 See Heath & Heath, Made to Stick, Why some ideas survive and others die, (NY: The Random House Publishing Company, 2008) pp. 285-288. 
6 See Jan Klein, “Organizational Leadership and Change”, MIT OpenCourseWare, Course Number 15.317, Lecture 3 Notes, [internet] [cited 11.19.2012] Available from http://ocw.mit.edu/courses/sloan-school-of-management/15-317-organizational-leadership-and-change-summer-2009/part-i/lectures/MIT15_317SUM09_lec03.pdf slide entitled “Capturing Mindshare” in referring to the transmitter-receiver relationship in any communication.
7 See Argenti, et al, “The strategic communication imperative”, MITSloan Management Review(Spring 2005) Vol. 46, No. 3, pp. 83-89
8 See highly referenced scholarly article by Stuart Klein, “A management communication strategy for change”, Journal of Organizational Change Management (1996), Vol. 9., No. 2, pp. 32-46.
9 See Jan Klein, “Organizational Leadership and Change”, MIT OpenCourseWare, Course Number 15.317 Lecture 1 Notes, [internet] [cited 11.19.2012] Available from http://ocw.mit.edu/courses/sloan-school-of-management/15-317-organizational-leadership-and-change-summer-2009/part-i/lectures/MIT15_317SUM09_lec01.pdf slide entitled “Outsiders on the Inside Wear Two Hats”
Exhibit “Managerial Styles” of communication from “Communications for Managers, Course Review”, MIT OpenCourseWare, Course Number 15.280, Summary Lecture Notes, [internet] [cited 11.19.2012] Available from http://ocw.mit.edu/courses/sloan-school-of-management/15-280-communication-for-managers-fall-2008/lecture-notes/lec_14.pdf

 

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{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Tom Reeder January 22, 2018 at 11:33 am

CO-AUTHOR’S NOTE

For further reading see “Six Steps to Communicating Strategic Priorities Effectively,” MITSloan Management Review, Research Highlight 1.19.2018 http://bit.ly/2n1A6y4

Based on study of S&P 500 companies, leaders communicate strategic priorities most effectively through 6 characteristics:
1. Limit strategic priorities to a handful
2. Provide a concise explanation of what a priority means
3. Clarify how a priority will be accomplished
4. Explain why a priority matters
5. Measure progress toward achieving the priority
6. Set specific targets for the future

Few (3%) meet all these conditions based on more than 1500 strategic priorities listed by 311 S&P companies that publicly-reported strategic priorities for FY2014.

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