Your Vision is Grand, but How About Your Plan to Communicate It?
(Warning to big thinkers: this post may induce boredom,distraction, and denial. Read it anyway.)
The other night, I was speaking to a group of entrepreneurs about internal communications. Namely, that if you have a vision and want people marching behind it, then you should develop an internal communications plan to get and keep alignment.
I deliver this topic every year, and coach CEOs around it routinely. I can predict with certainty the reaction to this discussion. First, head nods and acknowledgement. Then an exchange with some combination of avoidance, denial, excuses, and assurances that it’s “taken care of.” (And even odds, a few words about resuscitating irregular email newsletters.)
I get it. If you want to bring a big picture thinker down, just mention the words plan or process. That’ll pretty much do it. The vision is the fun part. The routinized communication of a vision often feels the opposite of fun. It seems boring — and who wants boring when there’s so much creative ideation to do?
As it turns out, you do, if you want your vision to stick. Internal communications is the primary place where great ideas fall short. As leaders, we want to dream big, announce said dream, and then get to work. The problem is, the rest of the company doesn’t operate like that. If you don’t develop a systematic approach to make your vision clear to others — and keep it front of mind — then chances are it will be forgotten before you can get out of the gate.
And ad hoc communications when the leader finds time doesn’t cut it (though it’s the unfortunate norm). Imagine any other critical corporate function, like sales, delivered randomly when the spirit hits? It’s laughable.
So if you have a big idea you want to initiate, or want to help your company embed a vision, here’s how you can build a plan to ensure success:
1) Launch the vision.
In our culture, we like to hear from our leaders personally to understand corporate direction. It gives us comfort to hear not only the words, but to also read the body language that accompanies them. It’s how we assess the seriousness and potential of new ideas — and determine how much we should care. When you initiate a new vision, do it during an all-hands meeting. Make yourself clear, and allow everyone to ask questions. Remember that your main goal is to inspire, not to inform. Perfectly crafted graphs may be helpful, but you must work on embodying the message and showing excitement.
2) Name it.
Make your message easy to remember by creating a pithy abbreviation or acronym for it. One of my clients recently launched a vision for changing the game, and the company has taken to calling new ideas Game Changers. It keeps the vision real, and allows people to apply it directly to their contributions. Companies can put the named vision on the wall, on pens and shirts, and even on the Web site. The point is to have it become part of the shared language of the office. (For superb ideas, check out Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh’s book.)
3) Display a real-time score card.
Good sales teams know that watching the progress on a goal is almost as fun as hitting it. Find a way to measure your vision, and make the progress public. Put it into company meetings, display it on intranets, and send out regular updates. This creates camaraderie and keeps people focused forward, even when unavoidable bumps occur.
4) Create a clear communications flow downward.
Information flows in any company, and if you don’t control it then it flows along the path of least resistance. This usually involves rumor mills. When change happens, anxiety inevitably comes with it. Make sure there are very clear communications pathways to let people know what is happening, and how the new vision is progressing. This can be as simple as having a weekly update message that’s communicated to managers to pass down. Or it can involve message liaisons who form a team for getting messages distributed. The net effect is that everyone hears roughly the same information at the same time. There’s clarity about what the leadership is doing and how the company is performing.
5) Have an equally strong communications path up.
As the leader, you also have to get information back to you that’s as unfiltered as possible. Create regular venues for people to address questions, complaints, and concerns about the change. I’ve had success by having regular CEO luncheons and by establishing a corporate policy where anyone can email the boss about questions. I worked with a very large finance company where the CEO had weekly town hall meetings through videoconferencing where he answered any person’s question and encouraged debate. The result was that he garnered a tremendous amount of support even though most people had never met him personally.
6) Celebrate successes and admit failures.
People lose trust quickly when new initiatives seem to fall off the corporate radar. Employees are busy, and they have a short attention span. It’s your job as the leader to keep your priorities front-of-mind for everyone. Take the time to publicly celebrate strides the company has made, and call out individual contributions. It will make success seem in reach and personal. Leaders will often shy away from making bold goals because they worry they can’t hit them. It’s okay to fail, but not okay to hide. When you have challenges, also publicly admit what’s not working. Take accountability and propose new solutions. The worst thing you can do is to announce a new vision, then silently take it off the table when circumstances get in the way. It will be that much harder the next time to inspire your team.
7) Don’t forget the rule of seven.
Marketers know the Rule of Seven — people need to see something seven times before they will act on it. As the leader, you are marketing your ideas. An internal communications plan is a way to put the Rule of Seven into effect, and keep it there. Don’t for a minute believe that because it’s your priority, then it’s also your team’s priority. By establishing a well-defined process for communicating new ideas, you will find that they will more often become new realities.
(Note: Portions of this post also appeared in the author’s column on Entrepreneur.com.)
May Update on the Try Something New Challenge
By the way, I’m still working on my new challenge every month. Are you? The month of May was all about rebranding for me in anticipation of my upcoming book, which took a lot of hard thinking, decisions and the new challenge of a redesigned site. I hope to have the new brand launched in mid-summer.
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