FEATURING GUEST CONTRIBUTOR: Gary Cohen, Managing Partner, CO2 Partners, LLC
Creating a strategic plan is quite an undertaking for any business. Not only are you often hiring outside firms to facilitate the process, but you are also using an enormous amount of internal resources to gather data, convert it into meaningful information and sort that data during over 3-5 days of meetings with your key players.
What is fascinating, is how often this effort fails– not in terms of determining the business’ path forward, but in disseminating the information broadly and effectively to all the members of the organization, especially those that were not part of the decision-making team. A great strategic plan should have focus and clarity around vision, mission, objectives, strategies and actions. In order to elevate engagement and participation, a communication plan needs to provide great simplicity, clarity and focus, without ambiguity.
Communication Strategy in 13 Steps
1. Call an all company meeting
This meeting is focused around communicating the organization’s strategic plan. If you have any thoughts that information from your senior team will leak before the meeting, use email or text message to get out in front of your messaging.
2. Who’s coming to the party
Review in detail who will be present and what level of detail they will need. You want to create comfort around any changes that might affect them. Think through the negative, as well as positive aspects of the strategic plan. When it comes to change, people will always assume the worst, so it’s important to get it all out at once.
3. Provide conceptual tools
During the meeting, describe the basic principles of a strategic plan, as well as any new terms or definition of terms. For example, if you discuss EBITDA, (earnings before interest tax and depreciation) don’t assume all your employees will understand what you mean. If you use a Balance Scorecard Model, take employees through the basics so that they can understand the meaning behind what you are about to explain to them. The more they truly understand, the more buy-in you will receive from them in the end.
4. Tell and retell the history
Provide a broader base about the history of the organization in order to create context around how strategy plays a part in the growth of the company. You can provide the key elements of what has led to your growth, challenges in the past and how that has informed your future direction.
5. Reveal the competition
Describe your competitive advantages and disadvantages with specific examples. In other words, name the competition. It may surprise you to know how few people actually think about the impact competition has on your business and direction.
6. Compare and contrast
Compare past planning processes with current ones. Some organizations have had very bad strategic plans or poor execution of plans, which can give you a bad rap among employees. If you are not specific about how this year is different from the past, you may have a tsunami of resistance against your planning before you have even begun to change it. Get ahead of the resistance by naming the difference.
7. Connect employees to the plan
Describe how this strategic plan differs from ones in the past. If you went out to employees with surveys, make sure they understand how they participated in the creation of the plan. Making connection points with employees will help find a mental place for them to store the information you are sharing. Without this many companies disconnect with their people and it directly impacts employee engagement. Dow Corning uses a matrix that focuses on Intellectual Understanding and Emotional Commitment of their employees. Those that are high in both are considered Champions. If you execute your communication plan well you are more likely to develop Champions within your organization.
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8. Describe the plan
Explain what barriers may arise that could potentially prevent your organization from achieving its vision, mission, objectives and actions. Remember that all employees have different levels of understanding, so make sure that you not only describe the numerics of the strategic plan, but also what the terms mean and why they are meaningful to understanding the business. Differentiate between signal and noise for your employees to determine relevancy.
9. Provide handouts of the plan
Don’t handout information that you wouldn’t want your competitors to see – there is a fine line of ‘what’ information to share with ‘who’ within the company). If your strategic plan is in book format, do yourself a favor and don’t pass that out. Provide only the critical information that will help support your employees in doing their job.
10. Point out the differences
Describe how you would imagine these new differences will show up in behaviors throughout the organization. The greater clarity people have around the potential impact of these new changes, the higher your return on both your planning and your communication delivery.
11. Ask them what they believe will be different and the same
Often times leaders don’t want to ask questions because they are afraid of what they may hear. Remember, just because you don’t hear it doesn’t mean that they aren’t thinking it and discussing among themselves. The only difference of you asking is that you now will know what is going on for them.
12. Allow them to ask you questions
Often times this model puts you as the leader on a pedestal, which is not the leader of today. So be careful about showing up as the leader with all the answers.
13. Reinforce Communication Strategy in regular intervals and in different ways
- Ask them to each meet with their managers about the details and implications of how they do their work within the organization.
- Provide a report card monthly on how the company and or area is doing against the strategic plan.
- Provide employee reviews that directly connect back to the plan.
- Tie compensation back to the success of plan initiatives.
- Include connections in the company newsletter or intranet blog about successes and challenges associated with the strategic plan.
- Put up a communication board or measurement graphic that will keep everyone connected back to the plan (be explicit).
- Use infographics to present information back to employees.
- Hold live quarterly employee meetings, or by video if you are challenged geographically, and reconnect everyone back to the strategic plan.
- Use walls and screen savers to propagate company values and mission regularly.
- Use an electronic score board on video monitors throughout organization.
- Use metaphorical premiums that can represent the over-arching vision.
If you use some or all of these steps in your communication strategy you will reduce resistance and increase the likelihood of strategic plan success.
About the Guest Contributor
Gary Cohen (CO2 Partners, LLC) Managing Partner
Gary is famous for asking; he wrote the book on it. He probes his clients with the only kind of questions that can produce change: unexpected ones. From the client’s answers, this dedicated Minneapolis leadership coach offers not just insights but alternative courses of action.
“There always are several good roads to Rome,” he says. “The key is to identify the one that best fits both your head and heart.” And he focuses on Rome–and not the possible curves in the road–for a simple reason: most obstacles are artificial, and the rest are in our heads. “Clear your head,” he has said, “and the obstacles disappear.” This may explain why Gary’s clients call him “eccentric in exactly the right way.” He knows that unusual success comes from unusual approaches, and–as Gary often has said, “I never have met a client who wanted to be ordinary.”
CEO experience: Managing Partner and Co-founder of CO2 Partners, LLC in 2004 an Executive Coaching and Leadership Development Firm. Founded ACI in 1989 with $4,000 and two employees, then grew 48 percent compounded annually for 12 years to over 2,200 employees and went public on the NASDAQ; Venture Magazine’s Top 10 Best Performing Businesses; and Business Journal’s 25 Fastest Growing Small Public Companies and Entrepreneur of the Year finalist.
Board memberships: All Kinds of Minds, Harvard Alumni Club of Minnesota, IC Systems, Inc., Richfield Bank, ACI, Telecentrics,, Outward Bound National Advisory, HBS Alumni Club of Minnesota (Past President), Minnesota Zoo Foundation among others.
Author: Just Ask Leadership: Why Great Managers Always Ask the Right Questions (McGraw Hill 2009); articles for Business Week, Leader to Leader, and Forbes.
Clients: Unilever, Intel, Genentech, MetLife, Thermo-Fisher, and 100 -plus entrepreneur-led businesses.
Education: University of Minnesota (B.A); Harvard Business School; Covey Leadership Center; Disney Leadership Institute; and Aspen Institute Crown Fellow. Want to know more about Gary’s approach to leadership and life? Read his blog, Elements of Leadership.
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