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Matt Stephens


Founder & CEO

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Strategic narratives: a simple story of successful leadership


“But we’ve told them a thousand times….” 

This is the frustrated refrain of senior executives when we discuss survey results saying that people have said they don’t know the organisation’s strategy. 

Everyone would agree the pace of change in business let alone the world means that businesses must be nimble to anticipate and respond to changing markets, competition threats and political changes. It means a lot is expected of executives today and the need for real-time responses to complex issues with a lot less time available for quality thinking and creative time isn’t easy. 

The need to adapt more regularly means a constant shift of the company strategy to enable the organisation to succeed. But the knock-on effect of this is huge as it presents an even greater challenge to communicate the strategy and help people understand their role in it. 

A hybrid of new and old

It's no surprise then that through Heartbeat we often discover that a lot of people in a business are following the last strategy, or perhaps a hybrid of new and old. This causes people to become frustrated and annoyed as they feel they are not in the loop and it wastes time, energy and goodwill.

Managers can feel disempowered as they are stuck between a ‘rock and a hard place’ trying to keep up with the changes that leaders make and keep everyone motivated to stay focused on what the company needs to achieve.

I recently worked with senior leaders from a large publishing company. As you’d expect they were very close to the strategy and had worked long and hard on getting it right. 

The context is a changing landscape of consumers moving from buying traditional magazines to consuming content online and at live events. The strategy was set to respond and adapt to these and other significant changes. And in their own words they were eager to get explaining it, to help motivate, excite and fire up their teams.

It was perfect timing as we had recently run a Heartbeat survey and the insight was clear. People were clearly feeling negative and the reason was obvious.

“Very clearly people who chose the negative emotions explained that their reason for doing so was because they couldn’t see where the organization was going, and therefore what the future might look like for them personally.”

It was also clear that the executives were very emotionally attached to the strategy, which is both a pro and a con. We began working with the executive team on to ensure we did get their people motivated behind the strategy and transferring it to action.

Firstly we needed to put the strategy into a story format

Technical language, management speak, and complex sentences turn people off. But most of us like and easily remember stories, especially if we can understand them.

Heartbeat results from other organizations showed that where organisations express their strategy through a story you see much greater impact, people understand it better, remember it longer and take active steps to put the strategy into action. 

The executive turned the dry PowerPoint slides full of data and targets into a story with a series of key chapters to take people through the challenges the organization faced, why it was important to tackle them, what it planned to do, what this would mean for people working there, and why it was exciting and the benefits of success.

All the way through, we challenged them to keep it conversational, using everyday language. Any hint of complexity can give people license to switch off.

Secondly, the executive needed to role model the actions needed

They needed to take the time to present the strategy stories to their managers, bringing the narrative to life using their own stories and experiences.

After the event we ran Heartbeat to see how people were feeling and what impact the event had. The big insight was that when people heard and were able to ask questions about the strategic narrative and the organisation's future (at the event) they were highly likely to be engaged by it and show positive emotion.

This was in contrast to earlier Heartbeat results following manager briefings to their teams that highlighted that if the manager didn’t feel briefed the message failed to land and had a massively negative impact on how people felt and therefore how engaged they were with the strategic narrative changes taking place.

“This was having a big business impact as it slowed down everyone buying into the transformation required that was critical for the business to succeed.”

Thankfully the executive were keen to equip team leaders to share the narrative locally

As we now knew seeing the top team present the strategy differently had a strong positive emotional impact on managers and encouraged them to want to do the same.

What was also required was to help them adopt a similar approach themselves so we created a clear, step-by-step structured guide which we were told helped a lot.

Especially key is to lay out messages, questions to ask, exercises and activities to engage and inspire and to make sure the whole thing is focused on outcomes.

A key outcome from the sessions with managers, that really kept people engaged, was a regular stream of stories direct from the teams showing how people were applying the strategy and making it work.

Author Profile Picture
Matt Stephens

Founder & CEO

Read more from Matt Stephens

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