Engage your employees, bring strategy to life

Leaders must realize even the strongest of plans are dependent on employee execution. Employees need to understand where the organization is going and how they can help it get there.

If your employees can rattle off the organization's vision, that's great, but do they know how it's going to be achieved? Maybe strategic plans of the past were crafted by a small group of people and securely stowed for safekeeping, but in today's increasingly competitive environment, engaging employees in business strategy is the only way organizations can succeed.

Today's leaders must realize even the strongest of plans are dependent on employee execution. Employees need to understand where the organization is going and how they can help it get there.

Just as the time and effort expended to create the plan are significant, there should be an equitable effort to communicate its tenets. However, strategic plans are generally lengthy, detailed documents that rarely excite and often exhaust people.

So how can we, as communications professionals, bring business strategy to life? In a word, storytelling. While the format of a strategic plan may be in slides and bullets, there is a narrative behind the charts that guided its creation. Our job is to ensure that narrative emerges from the pages and is used to engage employees.

In my division at Exelis, we distilled the strategic plan to one, two-sided “strategy snapshot,” describing where we're going and how we plan to get there. We created a toolkit to help managers show their employees how they fit into the big picture, and we're conducting manager communications training to help them hone their skills in this area. Our goal is to make dialogue about company direction a daily occurrence, rather than an isolated event.

While it's important to relay the strategy to employees, content without context will fall flat. When we sit down to develop our communications plan and materials at Exelis, we make sure we start with the broader view of what's happening in our industry or environment. Next we discuss our company's goals and strategies and how we plan to achieve them. Then we drill down and address what success looks like and how we'll measure it. Without opening the aperture and showing employees the data and macro trends driving a company's direction, it will be more difficult for them to accept the plan and execute against it.

There is not just one way to communicate the strategy of an organization. It may be a visual depiction that employees can post on their bulletin boards. It may be an online forum where employees can discuss the strategy. It may be a presentation from a key customer or industry analyst providing a macro view of the environment. It may be meetings where leaders share the strategy with those deeper in the organization. It should be all of the above and more.

Regardless of which vehicles you choose to tell the story, there are a few lessons we've learned about how to communicate strategy. First, it's important to use clear and conversational language, rather than complex terms and industry acronyms. Skip the esoteric stuff, and break the strategy down to its simplest terms. Second, provide tangible examples and actionable goals to make high-level strategies more understandable. “World-class provider of product X” may seem generic to employees, but “producing the highest quality product in the industry” or “providing quotes to customers within 24 hours” will make more sense; so link specific goals to the overarching strategy. Third, leverage powerful graphics and visuals that will save you words and will pack a punch with employees. Finally, engage employees in discussing the plan — versus just describing it to them. Dialogue will lead to greater employee identification with the direction. The more you can get employees talking about where the organization is going, the quicker you will get there.

In short, if we're counting on employees to deliver a strategic plan, then we must take a disciplined approach to ensuring they understand its context and content. Strategy belongs off the shelf and on the floor.

Courtney Reynolds is director of communications for ITT Exelis Electronic Systems.

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