A vital role for communicators is to tell all stakeholders, especially staff, about the decisions and the planned outcomes from the strategic planning process. Key messages need to be passed on consistently and effectively throughout the organization in a tailored way, not as mass-communication, head-office gloss or propaganda.
Link the ‘big picture’ with the ‘little picture’ for employees
The messages should link the ‘big picture’ with the ‘little picture’ so that staff can see how their individual efforts can make a difference to the end result. Research shows that organizations are more effective when their employees know the direction in which the organization is heading and their own personal role in helping the organization achieve its goals and mission. This is also called ‘line of sight.’
The time of most managers is largely spent in dealing with the local, short-term issues. The focus of the managers is on their daily, weekly, monthly and quarterly operational requirements as they deal with employees, customers and other stakeholders. Short-term thinking is fine as long as it directly supports long-term, strategic thinking. This point may seem to be basic, but the translation of strategy into short-term measurable objectives is often incomplete or faulty.
Managers need help to translate strategy into daily meaning for employees
Managers usually need assistance in breaking down the key issues, elements and needs of the business strategy into tactical, short-term operating objectives and action plans. This translation process is an integral and vital part of the execution of strategy.
Ask the managers what they intend to say to the staff about strategic direction. Ideally, the CEO would have already led the way with a summary presentation of the corporate plan. The aim is to translate how the strategy becomes fulfilled through completion of daily tasks.
Making the connection between the daily workplace and corporate strategy is easier said than done, but with a little thought, the tasks of even a personal assistant, coordinator or cost clerk can be linked to goals. By reviewing their job description or getting them to list their activities, their manager can link their tasks to measurable work objectives supporting the various goals at the departmental, divisional and organizational level.
How to find out if staff know if their work supports business strategies
One way of checking if managers have communicated the short-term objectives sufficiently is to ask their staff two questions:
- “What activities and objectives do you routinely work to in your department [unit, branch]?”
- “What business strategy do these activities and objectives support?”
The answers will quickly show the extent to which the respective manager is succeeding in their strategic role.
Another way to connect daily work to business strategies
Two highly experienced business professors recommend some innovative practices to help employees at any level of an organization. Professors Dan Cable and Freek Vermeulen, from the London Business School, explained the practices in their article, “Making work meaningful: a leader’s guide (2018),” published in the newsletter of McKinsey & Company, international business management consultancy. Their recommended changes are “simple, inexpensive, practical, and local.” It is critical for any company hoping to create an environment where organizational change is personal and where innovation becomes a bottom-up process of purposeful actions initiated by employees themselves. The other pleasing thing is that these simple actions involve employee communication in various ways, even though the article doesn’t spell this out
Dig down deeply with “Why?” questions
Push people to think about their work in a high-level way by asking employees a series of “why” questions for 3–5 of their most important job-related tasks. This suggestion offers a concrete way to help employees understand how their daily responsibilities link to a higher meaning, to a purpose larger than themselves. Almost every company says they would like to do this, but few succeed. Business leaders regularly communicate their company’s higher purpose in a vision or mission statement and try to reinforce it at conferences and workshops. While these efforts are well intended, few have a positive or lasting impact.
Sometimes, the problem is the vision itself. For instance, a co-founder of a graphic design firm, said his own company fell into such a “vision trap” when it defined its vision as “changing the way the world designs,” an expression of purpose that was too grand and too detached from daily tasks.
Sometimes, the problem is the way the vision is communicated. When leaders try to impose a vision, employees tend not to take the message to heart. Employees need to make the connection from their work to the company vision themselves.
Workplace exercise: To help leaders stimulate this bottom-up process, Cable & Vermeulen recommend a simple intervention technique. The exercise pushes people to think about their work in an increasingly high-level way and can be exercised one-on-one, during team meetings, or in internal workshops. Imagine a manager at XYZ Technology who regularly fills out performance-evaluation forms. The exercise consists of asking the manager 4 questions:
- “Why are you completing these forms?” Perhaps she would answer, “To give my team members feedback about their performance and to help them improve.”
- A second question builds on her answer: “Why do you want to help them improve?” She might say, “so my team can develop better enterprise software.”
- A third repetition of the question builds on the second answer: “Why do you want to build better enterprise software?” She might answer, “to improve the efficiency of our customers.”
- A fourth and final question gets to the essence of her work: “And why do you want customers to be more efficient?” The response might be, “so they are free to be their most creative and productive selves.” That is a grand goal – indeed, something a company might say in its mission statement. As each of her answers builds on her previous ones, the manager comes to align her task with the organization’s loftiest goals.
Help employees relate to the impact of their work on customers
Invite customers who have had the best – and worst – experiences with your products to talk with employees in person so your employees can see how their work affects customers – the end result of their work. Helping people understand the impact of their work does not have to be complicated or expensive. It should be personal, however. These kinds of first-hand interactions should be built systematically into your organization. One useful practice is to insist that all employees – whether they are customer-facing or not – make regular on-site visits to the end users of the company’s products.
Case study: That is what Dorothee Ritz, Microsoft’s general manager for Austria, did with her Vienna-based employees. Ritz insisted that everyone see for themselves how people were implementing the company’s products and services. One manager spent several days out on the street with police officers to learn how they use remote data. Another manager spent two days in a hospital to see the impact of going paperless. Soon, Ritz noticed, employees were suggesting more pointed solutions for customers based on their on-site visits. According to Ritz, this simple practice gives employees a better sense of the real value of their work in the best interests of customers.
Explain or delete management jargon
Senior managers tend to use acronyms and management jargon in the strategic planning process as well as in their daily workplace. As they are surrounded by other senior managers, they take for granted that everyone else is familiar with their terminology. This is seldom the case, especially with frontline staff. Therefore it is important to define terms when using them in communication or not use them at all. Even common terms like ‘mission’, ‘values’, ‘culture’ and ‘strategy’ are widely misunderstood by lower-level employees.
Find out understanding of frontline workers
To be effective, work back from the frontline level. The best way to check about employee understanding of important terms is to ask them about the acronyms and jargon words used in their workplace. Ask a sample of frontline staff individually in each workplace what is meant by terms such as ‘mission,’ ‘goals’ and ‘KPIs.’ etc. Sit in on their team meetings and listen for jargon. Become a jargon detector!
Make a note of the acronyms and jargon words used in the discussion about strategic direction and get the manager to explain the terms in subsequent team meetings. Staff would probably be reluctant to admit in front of others that they don’t know, especially if their boss uses the words every day. They wouldn’t want to look dumb in front of their peers.
In addition to verbal clarification, if there is widespread misunderstanding about certain terms, the communication team could explain them progressively in the corporate newsletter or even in briefing material. This can be done quite subtly in passing.
Communicators should be catalysts for better communication
Operational managers should be responsible for communicating with their own staff rather than PR practitioners trying to communicate on their behalf. Why should PR staff do the communicating when these line managers are responsible for all other matters at the local level?
The idea is for PR staff to be catalysts or enablers – to equip local managers and supervisors with the right tools to enable them to communicate effectively with their own staff.
Kim J. Harrison has authored, edited, coordinated, produced and published the material in the articles and ebooks on this website. He brings his experience in professional communication and business management to provide helpful insights to readers around the world. As he has progressed through his wide-ranging career, his roles have included corporate affairs management; PR consulting; authoring many articles, books and ebooks; running a university PR course; and business management. Kim has received several international media relations awards and a website award. He has been quoted in The New York Times and various other news media, and has held elected positions with his State and National PR Institutes.