Leadership communication: engaging employees to turn strategy into action
Quite often, we’re presented with one of two common internal communication challenges that leaders face. Both are related to delivery and execution. Either: “We launched our new strategy but I’m not sure anyone actually heard it”, or: “How do I communicate our new strategy quickly enough and ensure it’s understood by everyone? Our team is big and global!”
Some leaders, understandably, are so focused on Launch Day, the moment when they can finally reveal the plans they’ve spent so long agonising over, that they lose sight of the importance of additional, supporting communication which helps to reinforce key messages in the days and months that follow. Fast forward six months, it can feel somewhat deflating when it appears that few people have truly understood or delivered against the new strategy.
Other leaders put huge amounts of pressure on themselves to be the sole communicator and become overwhelmed by the task of spreading the word quickly and effectively. They forget that communication is not the responsibility of a single leader, however charismatic they might be, but of all managers throughout the business.
The solution to either challenge is the same, and requires a five-step approach to internal communication.
- Don’t just share the strategy, help make it actionable. Too often, internal communication strategies are based on sharing information instead of on creating understanding that can be turned into valuable action. For corporate strategies to succeed, employees need to understand what the strategy is, the context and the rationale behind it. They need to know their role and be guided on specific actions (including attitudes and behaviours) they should take. Crucially, they will also want to know what’s in it for them. If employee values, behaviours and actions are aligned, a business stands a chance in thriving amongst its competitors.
- Mobilise managers and build them into confident communicators. Did you know that middle managers are often the most resistant to change? As a result, it’s worth gaining their support and buy-in early. It demonstrates leadership alignment and encourages them to help cascade key messaging in a consistent and positive way down through the organisation. Whilst they say “many hands make light work”, bear in mind that not all leaders or managers are natural communicators. Nor will they be in a position to repeat the strategy having heard it only once. It’s important that managers are developed as communicators with the support and tools they need and given the freedom to adapt the messaging and delivery in a way that feels authentic and relevant to them and their teams.
- Communicate with clarity and purpose. And continue to communicate. Businesses are complex but the way strategies are communicated needs to be simple if it’s to connect with those at the front line. Failure to make communications clear and easy to follow will create resistance to change. Once you have defined the direction of the organisation, state it clearly and simply. Then ensure it is distilled into a few unequivocal targets that can be emphasised repeatedly. You shouldn’t assume that people have heard it the first time, even if to you it was communicated thoroughly and well at the big reveal. Colleagues will need to hear it again and again, from various leaders and via various communications channels for it to truly resonate.
- Use language and channels that are relevant and tailored. Particularly for multinational organisations, internal communication plans need to incorporate cultural differences to ensure that company-wide messages remain consistent and get through to their intended audience. For example, employees working in manufacturing will have limited access to a computer. Therefore, an in-person meeting held by a local site manager, who can translate and localise key messaging, will be far more effective than a regular all-staff newsletter sent via email which will likely be left unread by this audience.
- It’s about quality, not quantity. With change being a near constant in most big organisations, many employees are experiencing an information overload. Because they only have limited capacity, they will develop coping mechanisms, such as deleting emails before reading them. Communications is key to bringing a strategy to life. But to do that, it must be well managed. Undisciplined and unmanaged communication can act as a roadblock by spreading greater complexity and confusion throughout the organisation. For example, a team meeting which allows for dialogue – a process that enables colleagues to explore, test and provide feedback on what is being communicated to them – could be a good replacement for a multitude of newsletters.