Closing the leadership gap around communicating strategy

Now more than ever, employees want to know what the company is doing — and why.

Julie Baron is an affiliate consultant with Ragan Consulting Group. With 30 years of communication experience, her expertise includes employee and leadership communications, global communications, training and public/media relations. Tom Corfman is a senior consultant with Ragan Consulting Group, where he directs RCG’s Build Better Writers program.

Playwright George Bernard Shaw once quipped, “England and America are two countries separated by the same language.”

And what about work culture?

There are a few things Americans might pick up from the English, many of whom work fewer hours, take more vacation days and enjoy two tea breaks a day. We also could learn about how to better communicate business strategy to employees, based on the findings of recent survey of 3,000 U.K. workers by the England-based Institute of Internal Communications.

The survey reveals a failure by corporate leaders to explain their big-picture plans and the reasons behind them, a breakdown that likely exists on both sides of the ocean. Only 45% of employees are clear on their company’s strategy and believe in it, the survey found. The rest either don’t understand the strategy, don’t believe in it, or both.

And senior executives are aware of the trouble. Among this group, 80% believe in their company’s strategy, but just 66% say it’s been clearly communicated.

Understand managers

This gap hurts profits. Strategy requires change. When the reasons for change are understood throughout an organization, companies gain a stunning average of 143% of the returns they expected, consulting firm McKinsey found in 2002 study. Helping employees better understand the corporate strategy is a huge opportunity for communicators to demonstrate how they contribute to the bottom line. But they need to do more than push out toolkits with key messages and FAQs.

Direct managers are the most common source of information about business priorities, yet these folks are ill-prepared for the task. A third of these supervisors say they don’t feel equipped to lead a conversation with their team. They want more and clearer information on what to say.

The problem isn’t managers. It’s senior leaders and communication pros. We don’t do enough to learn what would help these managers. We must work harder to understand them. Here are three ways to do that:

  • Uncover perceptions. Do managers truly understand their role in comms vs. leadership and your department?
  • Make the connection. What do they know, believe and do? And why? Are they connecting the dots for their employees?
  • Get up close and personal. What are their challenges and concerns?

There are differences in work culture across the Atlantic Ocean. For example, more U.S. employees feel stress a lot of the day than their counterparts in the U.K. (53% vs. 38%), while more Americans are engaged with their work (34% vs. 10%), according to Gallup’s State of the Global Workplace: 2023 Report.

Being more polite

About the same percentage of American and U.K. employees feel anger (20% vs. 19%). But the British express it more politely.

To be sure, employees want to hear the CEO’s big vision and ambitious goals, but they expect their managers to connect the dots. Employees want answers to these questions: How does our department fit into the vision? How can I help the company reach these goals in my day-to-day job?

“People place greater trust in what they hear from their direct manager than from their CEO,” the report says.

Of those surveyed, 65% said they trust the communications of their direct manager, compared with 54% who said they trust the CEO. Moreover, the larger the organization, the more trust in the CEO declines.

What can managers do? They can:

  • Turn employee apathy, skepticism and confusion into engagement with communications.
  • Ease the personal difficulties employees often have with change.
  • Translate high-level visionary messages into daily actions.

In crafting a corporate strategy, many CEOs follow the philosophy often attributed to Ray Kroc of McDonald’s. “Look after the customer and the business will take care of itself.”

Managers are communicators’ customers. They ‘re not just a channel. They should be as important to the C-Suite as the customers in front of the counter.

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