Conversation Starter: How Intentional Are You?

If you ask top business leaders today to name the chief impediment to the success and growth of their company, many of them will name “uncertainty”—market uncertainty, regulatory uncertainty—as a prime culprit. No doubt there’s a lot of truth in that point of view. Yet those who hold it often suffer from a kind of blind spot. They assume that uncertainty is a problem that emanates from outside their organization. Arguably, though, it’s the uncertainty that exists within a company that takes the biggest, longest-lasting toll on that company’s performance.

If your employees aren’t sure about where you stand, or about where your company is heading, then their lack of certainty in that area will hinder their ability to help move the company forward. More than ever before, people at all levels of an organization need to understand the strategic aims that their leaders are pursuing. Equally important, they need to have a firm grasp of how their own work relates to those aims. No longer is it enough for employees just to “do their jobs.” And no longer is it enough for executives simply to issue orders. Instead, leaders must explain to their people the strategy—the sense of organizational direction—that underlies every operational directive.

On the whole, people within organizations enjoy a lower degree of strategic awareness than you might think. In any event, their level of strategic awareness is lower than it should be. A couple of months ago, we surveyed several dozen participants in an Executive Education program at Harvard Business School. (The program in question, Driving Performance Through Talent Management, gathers executives from every part of the globe, and from companies large and small.) The vast majority of these organizational leaders said that it was “not true” (30 percent) or only “somewhat true” (38 percent) that “employees at every level understand, and are able to discuss, the big-picture strategy” of their company.

Again and again in our research, we’ve observed variations on that finding. In 2007, for example, we surveyed roughly 1,000 employees at Fortune 500 companies about issues related to motivation and engagement. In that survey, we asked respondents to rate the degree to which their “manager communicates a clear strategic direction” to them, and the average score for that question was notably lower than the score for many other questions that we posed. (Note that this survey took place before the 2008 financial crisis, and thus before the current moment of “uncertainty.” Clearly, the kind of uncertainty that bedevils organizations internally is a longstanding problem.)

To raise the level of strategic understanding within their company, leaders must learn to be intentional about the way that they communicate with employees. In other words, they must work to align what they say—and how they talk—with a clear pattern of strategic intent. The practice of communicating with intentionality is one element of a new leadership model that we call organizational conversation. In the more traditional model, leaders treat employee communication as a matter that’s essentially distinct from company strategy. Intentional leaders, by contrast, put a premium on integrating those two components of leadership responsibility.

Here are four ideas that will help you become a more intentional leader.

1. Think ahead. Before they can cultivate a strategic conversation within their company, leaders need to develop a conversational strategy. Typically, that process begins with top-to-bottom assessment of current communication practices, and it results in the adoption of a long-range communication plan—a full-fledged agenda for organizational conversation.

2. Paint a picture. Ideally, people throughout an organization will be able to talk about top-level company strategy. But different people learn in different ways. To help employees become strategically conversant, therefore, smart leaders get creative about how they communicate this kind of information. They tell a story, for instance. Or they use visual imagery to capture the challenges and opportunities that their company faces.

3. Ask for help. One way to ensure that people have a clear view of their company’s strategic priorities is to give them a role in setting those priorities. Ultimate responsibility for that process rests with senior leaders, of course. More and more leaders, however, find that by soliciting input from mid-level and frontline employees, they can bring useful new ideas to the fore—and increase companywide strategic engagement as well.

4. Watch what you say. In talking with employees, effective leaders use consistent, well-thought-out language—language that aims to keep everyone’s “eyes on the prize”—to describe company operations and company objectives. By doing so, they turn communication into a vehicle for driving strategic alignment.

Organizational conversation, like personal conversation, thrives when its participants know where the conversation is going. That’s why intentional leaders strive to make sure that employees are able to speak—in no uncertain terms—about the strategic direction of their company.

[Cross-posted, in a slightly different form, at the Harvard Business Review site.]

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