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Strategy Dies in the Forgotten Middle Layer of Management


photo by Kumar Appaiah / CC BY

Middle management is where well-intentioned business strategy goes to die.

Harvard Business Review took a thoughtful look at the strong connection between communicating management intent and achieving business success. It seems the why often gets lost in communications. It makes no sense, until you consider that mid-level managers play an important (yet under-appreciated role) translating corporate strategy, goals, and policies into specific tasks for their teams.

Remember that these people weren’t in the board room when the decisions were made and the strategy was set, but they are ultimately responsible for making or breaking a corporate initiative. They will either take the big idea and make it reality, or the grand plans will wither and die a slow death at their hands.

Their power lies in their position as the translator of concrete ideas to actionable tasks. Dictating from above doesn’t work because employees respond to and have a deeper connection with the person to whom they directly report.

When I was with SAP in Europe, Middle East and Africa, we asked a sample of the 11,000 employees how they received most of their information. They said: their manager. We asked how they preferred to get corporate information. They said: their manager. We asked how they wanted to receive information in the future. They said: their manager.

The direct manager of every employee is the preferred communications method. Fancy intranets, newsletters, or bulletin boards will never replace this human interaction with the single person who holds the key to determining an employee’s level of job satisfaction, performance and accomplishment, and level of compensation and career advancement.

Managers are wise to acknowledge this and determine how to leverage their influence. Too many managers remove emotion from their interactions with employees, which dulls their ability to be influential. Instead of thinking of business strategy as a fact-driven directive, managers have the power to bring it to life by creating an emotional connection to the future state the strategy will reveal.

Only robots perform tasks without comprehending why they’re necessary, what came before, and what will come next in the process. Employees are not robots and they are unable to operationalize a strategy unless they are armed with a fundamental understanding of their role in its execution.

Good managers know exactly what speaks louder than words. Observed actions are not only modeled by the team, but they also trigger stories that move rapidly through the organization. Whether the story is a retelling of bad or good behavior, the decision-making and actions of  employees will be influenced.

Stories are sort of like implanting a programmable chip in employees’ minds. Annette Simmons noted, “Story is like mental software that [managers] supply so that [employees] can run it later using new input specific to the situation…..Once installed, a good story replays itself and continues to process new experience through a filter, channeling future experiences toward the perceptions and choices you desire.” Stories turn employees into independent thinkers and eliminate the need to micromanage.

Managers who step up to their role in strategy execution will likely find themselves elevated to a position where they are in the room next time big decisions are made. So forget implanting a microchip in employees’ heads or replacing them with robots. Instead, tell a story or do something remarkable that triggers a story and watch an abstract strategy come to life before your eyes.


Step Away from the Email: Putting an End to Email Abuse

How email became the communication everyone hates to love

Ask any cubicle dweller, telecommuter, or white collar worker, and they will tell you they hate email. But ask them how they want to receive large-distribution pieces of information – give them every option from a phone call, to a community message board, to social media – and they will pick:  email.

The hate-to-love-it mentality is frustrating for us communicators, until you consider that so many senders of email use it incorrectly.

But how can you do something wrong that you do every day? After all, just about every breathing person who spends a portion of their day in front of a computer both consumes email and produces it.

Email has become the lazy manager’s preferred communication.

It’s a push that requires no pull. It’s a way to check something off your to-do list without verifying that the message was received or the follow-up action completed. As a result, too many middle and upper level managers have become over reliant on email as a means – sometimes the only means – of communication with their employees.

The result is a lot of messages being sent, but very few messages being read, understood, and acted upon.

Disconnect to reconnect: a fundamental change to employee communications

Picture1We helped a global enterprise software leader capture employees’ attention by pulling the plug on the most popular electronic channel. That’s right: we shut down bulk email messages from executives to employee for a while.

The over-reliance on email messages was causing the executives’ messages to get ignored. An email from an executive to employees should receive heightened attention. It should be disruptive. The employee should have a strong desire to read the email. The “from” name alone should create a sense of urgency: “something is happening that I need to know”. This wasn’t the case because employees had become accustomed to receiving operational and mundane announcements from the same people who should have been strictly communicating strategic and high-priority information.

The first phase of our plan created radio silence by shutting off email between executives and large groups of employees. It was intended to dramatically capture some attention. It did that. At the same time, the temporary policy forced a shift in the executives’ – and employees’ – views of email. Executives were educated about the availability and effectiveness of other communications channels. During this period, employees were also trained to gather information from sources other than their email inboxes.

Next came a carefully orchestrated return to “the new normal,” which served to re-calibrate the tone, tenor, and tempo of communications. We recaptured the aura around executive communications, ensuring they would again be as effective as possible at conveying important messages that needed eyeballs and action.

Shutting off email for a time was just the beginning. We also opened up opportunities for dialog, trained mid-level managers, and gave our communications channels a face lift. The rest of the program and its impressive results were detailed in an article by Melcrum.

What would happen in your organization if leadership could no longer send mass emails to employees?

A tale of year-end lists: managers should put the wishes of employees on their to do lists


Photo by katrha/CC BY

In a guest post on Sean Williams’ CommunicationsAMMO blog near the end of 2012, I advised management to be on their best behavior and improve employee engagement.

Putting Management on the Nice List

It’s the time of year when we’re all making our lists and checking them twice. A recent stop at the rental car counter gave me a peek at what me employees have on their wish lists.

While waiting for my keys, I overhead a customer point out that a policy was being implemented differently at another branch. The employees didn’t argue the point; instead they were eager to comply, but also quick to lament that management hadn’t shared the information with them. From the sounds of the conversation, this wasn’t the first time management had failed to convey a policy change.

The employees seemed disappointed, frustrated and a little embarrassed. They were earnestly trying to provide excellent customer service, but they felt doomed to fall short of a standard set by the leadership.

The rental car company is far from alone. “Tell us what you’re doing, so we know what we should be doing,” is a cry from employees that doesn’t get heard at the highest levels of many organizations.

Employees want to be a part of the solution, but if they don’t know the reasons for policies, procedures and initiatives, their hands are tied when it comes to execution. Employees need to know the why so they can have confidence in their role.

Management can give employees what they really want by making a list of its own. Instead of a wish list, it’s a to-do list that will make the business strategy the guide for of every person in every corner of the organization.

• Share the rationale for the strategy – don’t shield employees from harsh realities.
• Personalize the strategy for individuals, teams, regions, business units and functional areas.
• Put measurements in place and celebrate progress.
• Tell stories of all types of employees demonstrating the model behaviors.
• Encourage employees to contribute ideas within the framework of the strategy, and then implement them.

Your business strategy is powerful. It can motivate, inspire and guide everyone in the organization. Used correctly, the strategy can help management build trust, remove barriers, and protect the brand. When employees understand the strategy, they will be empowered to set priorities and execute consistently.

What else should be on management’s to-do list to make employees’ wishes list come true?

Communicate better. Curse less often.

Oh, the yelling. And the foot stomping. Even the cursing!

Measuring communications effectiveness is hard, especially when everyone wants to know a different set of data.

Too often, communicators measure their output or effort. These include videos produced, blogs posted, and letters sent.

Or they measure input, also known as response or feedback, such as re-Tweets, page views, and Facebook likes.

But management – you know, the ones who control the budget – they want to see results. For them, outcome metrics include sales revenue, employee retention rates, and shorter average close times.

What is a communicator to do?

Be smart and take a clue from one of the smartest chefs and dirtiest mouths on television: Gordon Ramsay.

In a piece I wrote for Sean Williams’ CommunicationAMMO blog last year, I concocted a recipe for communications assessment that could have been ripped from a Chef Ramsay school for restauranteurs textbook.

Be the Gordon Ramsay of communications assessment (without the profanity)

Watch any Gordon Ramsay show and you’ll hear a lot of screaming and profanity. Chef Ramsay screams because successful restaurateurs know there is no fool-proof recipe for success in that business. The same can be said about communications measurement.

A restaurant’s success is the combination of the ingredients used, the positive reviews secured and the way winning was defined. By combining data from activities, awareness and behavior, communicators can produce evaluations that that are accurate, actionable and vulgarity-free.

Select the ingredients: farm fresh and locally sourced
For communicators, we examine qualitative and qualitative activities — number of emails sent, press releases issued, or the introduction of new branding. Many measurement programs begin and end by counting effort, but fast food (frozen, processed and fried – yuck!) proves that ingredients are only one component of overall success.

Analyze the reviews: professional critics and
Opinions voiced in surveys and straw polls, as well as superficial engagement figures, such as event attendance or number of blog comments, help communicators measure changes in awareness, attitude and understanding. Lacking context, this information is as helpful as a restaurant review written by the owner’s mother. So what if @Mom_of_ChefGordon gave it four stars?

Define the win: Michelin stars and long waits for tables
Outcomes are the deliberate result of every other decision and action that was made. Communicators should always measure outcomes that are defined for each communications project and aligned to the business strategy.

Taste the victory: magic for diners, profits for restaurateurs
A comprehensive picture of your communications programs will help you claim victory for the larger organizational goals. It will also help identify and correct problems.

If your program falls short, it’s understandable that some choice words will be used. Gordon Ramsay could have been speaking about public relations when he said “Swearing is industry language…You’ve got to be boisterous to get results.”

Perhaps a little profanity is OK.

The Dotted Line: Strategic Planning and Purpose

206210de6355a3eb04e463b2_280x186The October 2013 issue of The Dotted Line features news + resources for planning your strategy and communicating your purpose. A full version is available online. Subscribe to receive future issues in your inbox.

Linking Plans to Purpose
It’s strategic planning season and you’re up to your eyeballs in forecasts, trend reports and competitive analyses. Once the planning is done, the 2014 kick-offs come in quick succession, then it’s time to execute.

Looping employees into strategic planning will help make their wishes come true and will keep you on the nice list.

But plans, vision and strategy aren’t enough. Clarity is essential because “if the intent of these plans isn’t aligned with the communication, people may be impressed, but deep down inside, they will not believe in those plans or act on them.”

If you’re sick of working on your 2014 plans, Mental Floss is always good for a break. Relax by taking a moment to consider your Halloween giveaway strategy. (Kids who hike up my steep driveway will be rewarded with glow sticks and full-sized chocolate bars.)

Personal Purpose
You don’t have to wait until your next life to find purpose and meaning for your career and business. Just listen to the Trappist monks and this successful entrepreneur.

No Purpose? That’s a Problem.
An organization without a defined purpose is funny, but only if it’s the fictional Dunder Mifflin.

A Deloitte study demonstrates that companies with a strong sense of purpose find more success, while those without purpose are directionless and apathetic.

Putting it Together
During planning season, a Connected Strategy:

– inspires, motivates and guides behavior all year
– fulfills the brand promise
– reminds everyone of the higher purpose

We can help you Connect the DOTs.

The Dotted Line: Communicating Strategy

248c015219d72dfe8bb22672_299x169The July 2013 issue of The Dotted Line features news + resources for creating a culture of innovation. A full version is available online. Subscribe to receive future issues in your inbox.

Communicating Strategy
When everyone knows and understands their role in your strategy, it’s easier to unite every stakeholder behind a common cause. The knowing is achieved when leaders consistently communicate. The understanding is achieved when managers listen to direct reports and appeal to their personal interests.
Although strategy usually comes from the top, it’s possible to create a shared vision with your team.
Regardless of where the strategy originates, the best leaders genuinely care about employees’ individuals goals. Corporate magic happens when everyone’s hopes and wishes are aligned. Fast Company says it pays to help your employees dream big.Throw a Theme Party

Think of your strategy as a theme party. Whether applying it to your supply chain or any other business area, the strategy helps you prioritize and organize seemingly disparate initiatives.Strategy During Crisis
To rally the troops during tough times, DuPont CEO Ellen Kullman patiently repeated the business strategy. She admitted this was her least favorite part of the job, but also the most effective way to drive performance.

Consistent messaging was key, she explains in this short video from Fortune.

Putting it Together
For your stakeholders, a Connected Strategy:
– is the theme for your most important initiatives
– provides a solid foundation amidst uncertainty
– points everyone in the same direction

We can help you Connect the DOTs.

The Dotted Line: Leading Change

64903e1e3c57356e63a26491_306x229The June 2013 issue of The Dotted Line features news + resources for leading change. A full version is available online. Subscribe to receive future issues in your inbox.

Want real change? The first thing to shift is the way you lead and manage it.
The CEO of Samsung kicked off a major change initiative by taking hammers and a bonfire to $50 million worth of products. The employees cried, but then they helped transform the company from a maker of cheap electronics to that of an innovation powerhouse that develops curved TVs and cuts “genius” deals with Jay-Z.

You might not need to be as dramatic as the Samsung executives, but recognize how the change is viewed from different perspectives and realize that we’ve been complaining about how fast everything moves for at least 140 years.

Leading Change
Change occurs when many individuals  regularly act in a new way.

As this excerpt from Leading Successful Change: 8 Keys to Making Change Work, by Gregory P. Shea and Cassie A. Solomon explains, focus on behaviors and the environment.

Change Avoidance
Change is always optional. Ask the company that produced the first color movies in 1922 (if you’ve never seen this footage, it’s a must-watch).

Ninety years later, Kodak filed for bankruptcy. Going from innovative leader to complacent follower was ultimately a failure to change when the company needed it most.

When initiating change, a Connected Strategy:
– unites actions with purpose
– provides a solid foundation amidst uncertainty
– reassures stakeholders

and more…

The Dotted Line: Culture and Innovation

24e26d039d32b6d194102a79_280x279The May 2013 issue of The Dotted Line features news + resources for creating a culture of innovation. A full version is available online. Subscribe to receive future issues in your inbox.

It’s not enough for innovation to be a part of your strategy. It’s also not enough to have a few people in the R&D department, or a C-level innovation officer, who are solely tasked with innovating.
Culture trumps strategy when it comes to ensuring that new ideas continuously flow and are diligently implemented in your organization.  Therefore, create a culture of innovation that involves everyone and uncovers the best ideas in your organization.

Just because your entire team is innovating, doesn’t mean added complexity. After all, less is best in innovation.

Leaders don’t necessarily need to be innovators. Instead, they just should get out of the way. Avoid these seven innovation killers.

Exemplary Culture
USAA is known for exceptional customer service, and CEO Joe Robels credits the company’s culture for the success.

If your culture isn’t as renowned as USAA’s, shifting to the culture you want starts at the top of the organization.

If innovation is key to your buiness strategy, then a Connected Strategy will:
– create trust
– inspire ideas
– establish links to the larger goals
and more…

The Dotted Line: M&A and Business Turnarounds

e1363881358.61The April 2013 issue of The Dotted Line features news + resources for managing change and communications during business mergers, acquisitions, and turnarounds. A full version is available online. Subscribe to receive future issues in your inbox.

Mergers and Acquisitions
Post-merger integration is synonymous with change. All at once, employees, customers, and the public are subjected to new a management team, a modified strategy, a combined culture and a redefined brand. It’s no wonder mergers are more likely to fail than marriages.

But it doesn’t have to be that way.

Deloitte took a thoughtful look at the hard facts and data behind post merger integrations. Knowing these truths can improve the success of the new venture.

A recent consolidation in the airline industry is a reminder that Day 0 is actually the starting point for years of work.

Re-branding is an obvious next step after a merger or acquisition. A road map can help you navigate this tricky endeavor.

Communicating During Change
Even today’s largest and most profitable companies aren’t guaranteed to be in business forever. (Just ask Arthur Andersen and TWA.)

Businesses are most vulnerable during times of change or crisis. However, managing the flow of information can help you ward off the silent killer of companies.

Mergers aren’t the only way to change the direction of a company. Microsoft has been credited with recently rediscovering its mojo. What can you learn from their six approaches to reinvention?

During M&A activities and business turnarounds, a  Connected Strategy:

– sets priorities
– builds trust
– motivates behavior
and more…

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