This is a story about two different strategy communication approaches. The first part is a tale about how old-fashioned traditional strategy communications can break an organization. The second tells the story about how great strategy communications can make an organization.

Part 1

Finally, Horatio’s day has come. He is the CEO of a global clothing manufacturer and is ready to address his people with his new, long-awaited Strategy.  It is (metaphorically) a Cloak and it is long and heavy, made of red velvet, gold trim, and sparkly gold sequins. It is tied around his neck with gold braiding and a ruby plated clasp, sporting the company logo on its back. The Cloak sits squarely on his shoulders and flows around him as he walks, giving him a grace and reverence that is befitting for only the most important of Leaders.

Horatio’s Leadership Team members have been working hard to make this Cloak for months. They employed the very best consultants and used the very finest of materials from around the world to get it right. Every cut and every stitch is completely perfect.

“They’ll love it!”, Horatio muses to himself proudly as he strides around his chamber, glancing occasionally at his reflection in the Mirror. It is 09.50 am and a global webcast has been set up to carry his New Strategy speech to 75,000 employees in 11 countries at 10.00 am. The announcement he is about to make has been checked by no less than 43 minions.  It has been polished so much that it is utterly generic and makes hardly any sense at all. But that’s not something he picks up. To him, the words he has rehearsed over and over by now, have their own meaning.  His Leadership Team and all those reporting to them also understand their own version of the meaning of the words. And they have perhaps just been a little too timid to confront him about some of bits they don’t really get, but never mind.

Horatio takes a deep breath, puts on a gleaming smile and opens the double doors from his office to the adjoining room in a flourish (he loves doing that at important moments).  He strides over to the podium where 30 people are waiting. Everyone looks at the finished Cloak in awe. He is convinced that his speech will get all staff on board.  At each location following the broadcast, dialogue sessions are to be conducted ‘in a lively way’ by moderators who are trained to get the conversations going with cleverly planted questions. He also wanted a suite of fully comprehensive communications activities to ram this all home, so that’s what he will get. A barrage of intranet, video and podcast releases are to take place over the coming weeks, backed up by a townhall sessions, posters and local presentations.

The whole strategy communications plan was designed to ignite momentum and fire up employee engagement scores (that have been flagging quite a bit of late, strangely enough) so that everyone can get straight on with the execution part.  Horatio envisages that soon, the company will be propelled to prosperity, making his competitors seethe with envy, and his Board overflow with admiration.

It is now exactly 10.00 am and the Executive Vice President of Global Employee Experience, Victor, opens the webcast nice and professionally. Horatio then proceeds to deliver his speech flawlessly, with all of the accents and pauses in exactly the right places. Then, with a final sound bite, he reaches a dramatically articulated ‘motivational conclusion.’ Afterwards, those in the room applaud and smile adoringly to congratulate him.

Horatio can’t see the reactions of his 75,000 employees and is not aware of what’s taking place in their heads. The Cloak may well be utterly fabulous, but they can’t see it for themselves because it doesn’t mean anything concrete to them. They stare back at his image on the screens, looking somewhat dazed. If you could hear their thoughts, this is what you’d pick up:

“It’s clear that the strategy involves a transformation, but what am I supposed to do differently?”

“This sounds important – I guess I’ll wait to be told how it affect us, later on.”

Most employees want to understand, they want to help, so their brains naturally make-up some meaning for the words he used so it can make some kind of sense:

“He talked about growth through automation, there will definitely be redundancies.”

“When he said they’d focus on Asian markets, that means they’ll shut down the European plants.”

“More efficiency means the end of our personal development budgets.”

The following cascade process relies on a host of Line Managers to engage their team members. They will obediently do this by following the examples of how to do this that are set before them: declaring the key messages, then telling people vaguely how this will affect things. During this process they will copy the Cloak-wearing stride because it feels good and they will criticize upwards when cornered. The problem is however, that roughly half of those Line Managers are somewhat baffled by what implications the Cloak will have for their teams, so would rather just avoid this whole exercise.  The other half are certain that their own interpretations of how this will affect things are right. In terms of scoring on the dartboard of relevance and clarity, it’s all a bit hit and miss.

Later, Horatio won’t hear that the dialogue sessions were felt to be just a bit of a show, with conversations only involving the minority ‘wannabees’ on peripheral topics.  He won’t find out that the intranet and newsletter supporting paraphernalia weren’t read much because they carried the same messages, sound bites, and tone that hadn’t made much sense before. And when all employees are made to complete the employee satisfaction survey, they will check the box that shows they did indeed understand what the CEO brought to them in the strategy communications – because they did indeed form their own understanding of it in the end.

Oh, and there was a junior guy who apparently did go around saying, quite loudly, that the Cloak was an invisible crock but he ‘left’ the company the following Monday.

One year later

The Cloak was created at the top, it is still owned at the top, and staff will never get to see it. They are told they should be Cloak ambassadors, to which most of them nod and agree. Trust in management sinks further. Engagement scores drop to match.

The organizational transformation effort is poor, and the strategy is not realized. Luckily, customers are slow to switch to a competitor – for now. Different consultants are brought in to diagnose why these results took place. They say it comes down to a range of complicated factors that need a lot of time to work on.

The corporate communications team blames Line Managers for failure of the strategy. People in both HR and Communications feel less of a connection with staff, they get slightly less power and budget than they did the year before and are annoyed about that.  Victor goes on present the strategic communications project at various conferences because there’s no doubt, it was a fantastically executed communications plan.

Horatio moves to a position on the Board and a new CEO is appointed.  Times are uncertain so this time, it will be different. The new Cloak will be …. royal blue.

Part 2 is here.