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Taking strategy to the masses

BUSINESS leaders often struggle to translate the highly intellectual concept of strategy into simple messages that ordinary and unsophisticated employees can understand.

Column by Brett Chulu

It is precisely this leadership weakness that contributes to the Spots (strategic plan on the syndrome) — a phenomenon whereby strategic plans are crafted but ignored.

Strategic human resources (HR) management, through its triple focus on talent, leadership and culture is well-equipped to help an organisation take its strategy to the masses. Between intended strategy and actual strategy there is strategic HR.

In this article we briefly explore four tips that can help business leaders deal with the Spots syndrome.

Ask for forgiveness

It does not matter how brilliant your strategy is — as long as people in your organisation have little or no respect for you as the leader — expect scepticism, half-hearted execution, even sabotage.

Trust comes before strategy. If you are a smart leader, taking trust-building as seriously as strategy-formulation will rank high in your list of priorities. In fact, building trust is part of strategy. As a leader you must be sharply aware of trust-sapping behaviours that diminish your trust capital.

Ranking top, especially in our current business environment, is failure to keep promises. It is not the big promises that have the most devastating effect on trust levels. It’s the “little foxes that destroy the flowers” that are a big for the employees.

For instance, when employees expect to get paid on the 25th of every month, they expect their leaders to communicate in time any delays in disbursing salaries. In this instance, leaders who attempt to explain to employees the cause of the delay well-after pay day come across as uncaring.

To make matters worse, leaders communicate using standard and predictable phrases such as “bear with us as we try to solve this challenge” or “any inconvenience is sincerely regretted”. To a parent who has the immediate pressure to pay for essentials such as rent and transport such belated communication can come across as being  insincere and sarcastic at worst.

What many business leaders do not understand is that heart issues are not solved intellectually. Show care and respect by communicating well in advance if you are going to fail to meet expectations. If you fail to meet expectations, do the only thing that is honourable — just apologise or ask for forgiveness for letting people down. Period. Do not water down your apology by shifting blame away from you.

Viewed from another angle, a business strategy is basically a set of promises to customers about how you intend to deliver on their expectations in a changing environment. Do you honestly think people in your organisation will take seriously your avowed intentions to lead them to deliver on promises you make to customers when you keep failing to honour promises to your family members (employees)? Why do you think investors punish heavily those listed companies that miss their profit improvement promises (earnings guidance)?

Bring in the customer
Having earned trust through keeping internal commitments, bring in the customer into the discussions with your employees.

The centre-piece of business strategy is the external customer who buys the goods and services your organisation produces. More often than not strategic planning proceeds without in-depth information about current and future customers.

How can you even begin to talk about strategy when you do not know enough about your customers? That is why leaders find it very difficult to excite their organisations about strategy because, their strategies are dead. If you share in-depth information about your customers with your employees there is no way you will fail to generate excitement.

Discard jargon and communicate
When you share in-depth information about your customers with your employees, strip your language of jargon. In other words, communicate. It is said there is a big difference between a communicator and a non-communicator. A non-communicator takes something simple and complicates it.  A communicator takes something complex and makes it simple. Looking up the term “communicate” in a Thesaurus yields the following equivalent words and phrases: interconnect, connect, link, join, transfer, lead into, converse and talk.

From these equivalents we learn that connecting the expectations of customers to the actions of employees is achieved through the art of communication.  We also learn that effective communication of strategy is done through a conversational style. In conversations, we tailor our language to the level of our fellow conversers. We talk their “language”.  Your cleaner and your grounds person must know your strategy.

In fact, the first place from where to find out the strategy of the company is neither at the board chairperson’s or the chief executive’s, let alone the senior mangers’ — it is at the ordinary persons’ stations. That is where you see what the real business strategy is. Forget the mission statement. Forget the vision statement. Forget the values statement. Read the cleaner, read the driver, read the machine operator, read the receptionist — it is from those at the coal face and not those in palatial offices where you learn the strategy of the organisation.

What the masses in your organisation do is what your strategy is, not what is contained in the loftily-worded strategic plans. Smart leaders know this.

Smart leaders never use terms such as profit margins when they talk to employees in the coal face. They do not use such terms such as brand. They do not use such terms as key performance indicators. They just don’t. Instead they paint these ideas. They dramatise these ideas. They tell stories. They communicate.

Sweet and short
If you cannot explain your business strategy in 12-15 words such that even the least-learned member of your organisation can understand it then you do not have a strategy. If you do manage to crystallise your strategy into 12-15 words and your employees at the coal face ask “what in the world is this?” then you do not have a strategy. Using such terms such as shareholder value, corporate governance, accountability, return on capital employed in explaining your strategy to employees at the coal face is the surest way of not having strategy.

Chulu is a strategic HR consultant who has consulted to both listed and unlisted companies. E-mail: brettchulu@consultant.com

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