Employees rarely pay attention to--and invest effort to align with--any new strategy or initiative they believe is the "flavor of the month" and will soon be forgotten. Unfortunately, that is the default assumption employees in many organizations hold any time leaders introduce something new. "I've learned from experience," employees will sometimes say, "that this too shall pass." Leaders can complain that this is a cynical point of view for their employees to hold--but most of the employees who hold it arrived at it honestly.
So how do organizations show employees that this time, it's for real?It starts with the words leaders use and the consistency with which they use them. "The main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing," as the saying goes. That means all leaders have to use the same message...and stay on message over time. When Dr. Len Schlesinger, currently President of Babson College, was a C-level executive at Limited Brands, he learned both how important and how hard this is to do. He trained as an academic and likes to play with words.
"Every time I used to talk about issues of strategy and positioning and stuff like that, I just used a little bit different phrasing," he says. "Because then it was more interesting to me. And I suddenly discovered that every time I used a little bit different phrasing, all of a sudden, people start saying, 'Oh my God, the strategy's changed again.'"
"I spent about a year screwing up the business by using a few different words every six to eight weeks," Len says. "Then I realized: I better use the same words all the way through." The lesson? "You've got to recognize that it's not about just entertaining yourself--unfortunately!"
Schlesinger's experience is common. In fact, through our internal tracking studies in dozens of organizations, we discovered a few years ago a phenomenon we call the puke point. It refers to the point in time that leaders become so sick of staying on message (and hearing themselves repeat it) that they "want to be lose their lunch." What's remarkable is that this point in time frequently coincides with an upswing in employee understanding of and engagement around the strategy. In other words, it's important for leaders to stay on message even after they're sick of doing so because that's the critical point in time that employees are just starting to truly "get it."
Keeping "the main thing the main thing" also requires that leaders explicitly connect the dots, making clear how all their decisions and actions--including what they're measuring and rewarding--support whatever it is they want employees to pay attention to and align with. Absent that, leaders tip their hand that whatever they are talking about is likely something in which their own interest is ephemeral.
At the most basic level, this is about practicing what you preach. At financial services icon Vanguard, Chairman and former CEO Jack Brennan frequently invokes the firm's mission statement: "We're here to help clients achieve their financial goals by being the highest-value provider." What's most critical, though, is that he stays on message not just in words but in actions. When we went to his office one day to interview him, he was reviewing his travel schedule. He planned to go to Phoenix for a day, and then return to Philadelphia for a client meeting. Then he planned to immediately turn around and head back to the West Coast for meetings in San Diego, San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Pasadena. And though he didn't point this out to us, we happen to know that he flies coach. So wouldn't it make a lot more sense, we wondered, to move the Philadelphia meeting instead of making two cross-country trips in a very short period of time? Not a chance. "The day I say something and don't act on it, I'm no longer credible," Brennan told us. "The travel is a real pain. But it's the day that worked best for the Philadelphia client. If I am saying they matter and I won't travel hard to do what works for them, then I am not credible."
What Brennan recognizes is that he is constantly broadcasting messages to the troops, through day-to-day decisions and actions, the things he rewards, what he tells people formally, and what he says informally. By sending steady, signals on all frequencies, he can count on Vanguard's thousands of employees to tune in to all of his messages.
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About the Authors: Jeff Grimshaw and Tanya Mann are partners in management consulting firm MGStrategy. Grimshaw is the author of Leadership without Excuses: How to Create Accountability and High Performance (Instead of Just Talking About It) .