The growth of large corporations in the last century has led to incredible progress and opportunity. That growth, however, has also created complexity within organizations. The idea of companies with thousands of people operating as one is next to impossible without a concerted effort by senior management focused on strategy, execution through communication, and culture.
Can you say what your strategy is?
The easiest way for companies to start the process of creating a One-Company culture is through a clear strategy that everyone can understand. Unfortunately, most employees have no idea what the strategy is for their company. What is even harder to believe is that most senior executives who sit on executive committees are also unable to clearly articulate their company’s strategy.
I recently worked with the executive committee of a large, global, beverage company on strategy execution and asked a question that I ask every time I meet with a senior management team: “If I were to wake you up from a dead sleep, could you tell me what the strategy of your company is, and would it be the same answer that I would get from other senior executives sitting around the table?” The CEO barked “of course!” to me. I then asked each of the executives to write down the company strategy in a sentence or less. The first three people I called on to read their answers gave completely different responses and the CEO did not believe that any of them nailed the strategy in their answers. He had no idea how little his own team knew about the company’s strategic vision. (See this FT article for more on this)
If the most senior managers of corporations are unable to clearly articulate the strategy, how can we expect employees to align together to act as one company? And, how can we expect the company to succeed in reaching its goals? The problem is not a lack of interest in strategy development or articulation. We know, for example, that companies spend millions of dollars with consulting firms and through internal processes trying to get their vision for the future right. But somehow all of that work falls short if managers really do not understand what was in the 50-page slide deck from the consulting firm.
What most companies forget is that you need to execute strategy through people and communication. Unfortunately, the HR and Corporate Communication functions that support these efforts are not the most highly regarded functions in the majority of corporations. Yet, the easiest route to success in developing a one-company culture is by creating a culture of one and through the execution of strategy through clear and understandable communication.
You can’t execute it if you can’t communicate it!
Clearly companies need to find ways to translate vision into a handful of words that can capture the imagination of employees all over the world. Orit Gadiesh, chairman of consulting firm Bain & Company, wrote an article for Harvard Business Review in 2001 (with James L. Gilbert) entitled “Transforming Corner-Office Strategy Into Frontline Action” that focused on how to distill “their strategy into a phrase and have it used to drive consistent strategic action throughout their organizations.” Earlier this century, she used Dell’s “Be direct” and GE’s “Be number one or number two in every industry in which we compete or get out” as some of the best examples of this distillation.
Today, we might look at Wal Mart’s “Save Money, Live Better” as perhaps the best example of a company strategy distilled into a few words. The dual focus on value through low prices and values through sustainability and responsible business behavior has transformed the largest corporation in the world (by revenue) in terms of its relationships with suppliers and its willingness to focus on major societal issues within and outside the corporation.
Several years ago, I wrote an article for Sloan Management Review entitled “The Strategic Communication Imperative” that focused on strategy execution through communication. We interviewed CEOs, CFOs, CCOs, and Investor Relations officers to ask what were the keys to success in executing strategy through communication. The responses from CEOs were almost all the same: The strategy must be clear and understandable, it must be true, and most important of all it must be consistent and repeated endlessly. In fact, many of the CEOs said that just about the time you are getting sick to your stomach of saying it, maybe someone heard it and could align around the strategy.
Fusing Self Interest and Corporate Interest
In research that my colleague, Professor Cees Van Riel of Erasmus University, and I have conducted around developing a one-company culture, we found that the following elements were most important: deep employee engagement, an entrepreneurial spirit, and authentic relationships between managers and employees. That critical connection when employee self interest and corporate self-interest fuse is the cornerstone of a one-company culture.
Similarly, the most successful companies we studied did the following to align their culture:
- Linked individual roles and responsibility to the overall strategy and values, ensuring that employees understood their personal connection to and impact on both.
- Trickled messages down, up, and sideways.
- Recognized that one-company cultures never have a top down approach to communication. Employees at the best companies felt like they had a legitimate seat at the table in shaping an organization’s strategy and future.
- Used technology to build communities organically.
- Focused on measurement to track and quantify progress.
- Clearly understood the complexity around creating a one-company culture. A truly aligned and engaged culture must be supported by thoughtful and thorough process integration.
- Realized that one-company culture requires the full support of a strong leader navigating the company in the desired direction and keeping it on track.
One of the best examples of an organization that was totally aligned around a strategy with a culture that had all of the attributes above is NASA in the 1960s. During a visit to the NASA space center in 1962, President Kennedy walked over to a janitor and asked: “What are you doing?”
“Well, Mr. President,” the janitor responded, “I’m helping put a man on the moon.” That mythic, larger than life connection and the ability to get everyone to think and act like an owner is what one company is all about.
Paul Argenti on Leadership and Strategic Impact Program
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