Three Ideas for CEOs Communicating Strategy

September 20, 2018

By Eliza McDevitt

Communication is the first step to shifting what employees think about the organization and how they behave in it. It’s a CEO’s job to provide a vision and direction for where an organization is going and to communicate it to employees. Communicating this “North Star” is especially important when the organization must change to achieve its vision. Communication is the first step to shifting what employees think about the organization and how they behave in it.

To communicate vision and strategy, CEOs can make speeches, send emails, and embed messages into existing processes and platforms. But these one-way activities rarely lead to true understanding. Instead, CEOs must commit time to dialogue and engage employees in conversation about where the organization is going, what it will take to get there, and why the change matters.

“You cannot over invest in communications written and oral because as a leader you constantly have to mobilize the troops.” -Indra Nooyi

Conversations can dramatically support change because they help individuals internalize the message and connect it with their own work. Organization development theorist and former MIT Sloan School of Management professor Edgar Schein reminds us, “dialogue creates psychological safety and thus allows individual and group change to occur… Dialogue cannot create the need to change, but it certainly facilitates the process of change.” It leads to greater excitement, alignment, and commitment to the “North Star,” which ultimately results in improved productivity, engagement, and employee retention as an organization moves in a new direction.

For example, one of our clients recently defined new strategic priorities that would require a different way of thinking and acting with their consumers. To create the shift the organization needed, the entire leadership team traveled across the country to sit down with employees and discuss what would be different in the future and why it was important. The dialogue was structured to share key messages and to be free-flowing so that everyone had an opportunity to draw personal connections and share their own examples. These dialogues created deeper shared meaning across the organization and built excitement among those responsible for executing the strategy.

For CEOs communicating a vision or strategy, here are three considerations:

Alignment among the leadership team is a prerequisite. Your leadership team must be on board with the change you seek to create because their mindset and actions will ultimately set the tone for everyone else. If the leadership team is not aligned, it will be harder for employees to follow along with the plan.
Dialogue is stronger than monologue. Dialogue is the art of thinking together. It invites employees to not only listen but also to engage in your vision. You may learn things in conversation with employees that inform your strategy, but more importantly, you will create shared meaning around the things that matter and the impact you are collectively creating.
Leaders under-communicate vision by a magnitude of ten. A CEO speech or an all-staff email may lead to awareness of your strategy, but it won’t shift your culture. Transforming employees’ mindsets and behaviors takes time and must be reinforced at every opportunity. You must continue to inspire employees, educate them about the change you seek, and engage them in dialogue about why it matters.

Nooyi, Indra. “Keynote: Exploring Inspiration and Leadership with Indra Nooyi.” BlogHer, August 6, 2012.

Schein, Edgar H. “On dialogue, culture, and organizational learning.” Organizational Dynamics, Autumn 1993, p. 40+.