There’s a multitude of articles telling managers to share business information openly with their workforces. Transparency is what we’re seeking in the workplace, so we share business results, performance against targets, financial spreadsheets and balanced scorecards.
But, even organizations who talk about the business regularly find that only 13% of employees actually take in the information. Many of us have read, with some dismay, the article in Forbes, written by John Kotter on July 19, 2013, called “When CEOs Talk Strategy, 70% Of The Company Doesn’t Get It”. And in June, 2013, an article in Harvard Business Review, “When CEOs Talk Strategy, Is Anyone Listening?” cited research recently completed by Timothy Devinney and associates at the University of Technology in Sydney that found the following: even in companies who take the time to communicate about the strategy throughout the organization, including all levels and functions, only a small percentage of employees actually take in the information. Per the article, “…the researchers asked employees of 20 major Australian corporations with clearly articulated public strategies to identify their employer’s strategy from among six choices. Just 29% answered correctly.”
Managers know that organizational success can only be accomplished through their people. Organization performance is in the hands of the workforce. So, what’s missing in management communication that is holding back organization performance?
My work experience, at the intersection of H.R. and Operations, has taught me many things, but one thing as a cornerstone: It’s not goals and financial metrics that motivate people. It’s emotions that drive behavior. So, while we’ve learned we must focus our people on goals and metrics and we tell ourselves that goals should inspire people, it’s how they feel about the goals and the numbers and the work they do that makes the difference between high performance and ‘good enough’. The goals and metrics are tools that come alive once we engage people’s hearts and minds.
So, let’s think about this: How can managers create a work environment that sparks emotional connections between their people and the work? How can we create an environment that makes it easy for people to motivate themselves and to achieve the high performance today’s organizations need in order to succeed?
My experience tells me that the most effective foundation for high performance is Strategic Understanding. Without a true personal understanding about the company and its strategy, especially about the company’s competitive differentiation, it’s difficult for people to find a sense of purpose and meaning in what they do day in and day out. And, in order for strategy to guide priorities, actions and decisions, people must have high certainty and confidence in what they know about the strategy.
Often, in my own experience, the strategic understanding and confidence in that understanding are left by the side of the road as people walk through data, metrics and numbers. And the impact of that lost connection between people and the business shows up in the organization’s strategic performance.
I have found that authentic and frequent communication can help managers to build a motivating environment. Three important aspects of this communication are:
- Educating our people about the company’s strategy, to help them to fully understand the unique value that sets our company apart from the competition to attract, delight and retain customers.
- Develop a systematic approach to providing interesting, varied and interactive communication about the strategy, centered on competitive differentiation and related balanced metrics. This can include leveraging existing opportunities such as company newsletters, group meetings, metrics and goal development and progress updates and one-on-ones.
- Share stories from sales, customer service and others to build everyone’s knowledge about customers, competitors and what makes your business different and special to customers
- Equip supervisor to help employees to envision the opportunities their roles provide for them to impact delivery of our company’s unique differentiation to customers.
- Getting to know our people.
- Make sure they have the opportunity to use their preferred skills and abilities.
- Provide an effective degree of autonomy and create opportunities for creativity for everyone. Leverage forums, special projects, and procedures that enable creative solutions and improvement ideas to be discussed and piloted.
- Tailor training and development to build each employee’s capabilities to perform strategically, short and long term.
- Involving people in aligning work procedures with the strategy.
- Ask them for their input to identify and resolve internal obstacles to delivering on our competitive differentiation.For instance, Southwest Airlines focused people on creating great customer experiences. They recognized that there were times flights were late and caused customers to miss connecting flights. Instead of focusing solely on improving on-time flight service, Southwest, with strategy as their guide, set up a system to provide boarding passes to new connecting flights to customers as they de-boarded late arriving planes. I bet many of us travel and can readily imagine the relief of customers in these circumstances. Instead of experiencing the stress and anxiety of rushing to find new connecting flights, customers were freed up to make calls and proceed to their new gates.
- Celebrating progress and successes, as well as goal achievement, so that delivering the company’s differentiation remains central to what people do every day, rather than incremental. In addition to helping people to sustain their enthusiasm, this helps to build peer pressure to continue to make progress, to perform.
I’m convinced that Strategic Understanding is the foundation for executing the strategy daily. It’s a springboard for performance, powered by the emotional connection of engagement that we as managers can create between each individual and the business, the tie that builds meaning and purpose for people at work.
As managers build this foundation, we share business information openly and form close working relationships with their people, supporting them in achieving success and in finding meaning and purpose in their work. These are actions that build management credibility and trust. Trust and strategic understanding build engagement. And, engagement within the context of Strategic Understanding builds performance.
What are your suggestions for building a Strategic Understanding throughout organizations? What are some of the benefits you’ve observed a strategic understanding can bring to the business? What are the implications for an organization whose people are unable to connect themselves to the strategy?