Employees don’t care about strategy – or do they?

A couple of weeks ago a CEO expressed their frustration at employees not understanding the company strategy. They said: “when I ask employees to explain our strategy, each person gives a different answer. What can I do?”

It’s not an unusual problem and we hear it often. When the Harvard Business Review studied high-performing companies with ‘clearly articulated public strategies,’ they found that only 29% of employees could correctly identify their company’s strategy out of six choices.

CEOs may not have delved into the decades of research into the importance of strategic alignment on employee productivity. But intuitively they understand there’s a problem if employees don’t know where the company’s heading and how we’re all going to get there.

So what’s the blocker?

It’s not what CEOs want to hear, but most employees don’t care about strategy. Or at least they don’t care if two things are missing.

Firstly, the strategy must be in service of a bigger idea that employees really care about. If the only goal of your strategy is to increase shareholder value, don’t be surprised if employees don’t share your enthusiasm.

And, secondly, employees need to see which bits of the strategy are relevant to what they do in their jobs every day. If employees can’t make this connection, why should they be interested in the strategy, and much less, in making it a reality?

Most strategies look and sound the same

Boiled down, most strategies can look and sound identical. That’s why Harvard found so few employees can pick out their own company strategy in an identity parade of competitors and peers from other sectors. So the starting point should be to make the strategy distinctive and relevant to your business, and the circumstances the company finds itself in.

The strategy needs a story – one that situates the business in the outside world and helps employees identify with what’s at stake, and WHY.

It’s why the development of a new strategy is often a trigger for the CEO to invite Brunswick to help her or him articulate the future story of the business. Setting out why what the business does really matters. Where it wants to get to. And what forces in society and the sector are causing it to reappraise its role in the world.

That provides the basis for being able to help every employee see what they can do to play their part. Not just in the strategy, but in the pursuit of a truly worthwhile purpose.

Connecting strategy to companies’ role in the world

Recently, we worked with the CEO of a global logistics business in a sector undergoing massive change. He’s made the company’s narrative his own and is using it to powerful effect. Building investor confidence in and understanding of the company’s direction of travel. Demonstrating alignment with his biggest customers. And mobilising his top leaders around a common set of priorities.

All leaders and managers have a vital role. This company’s leaders are adept at talking about the company purpose, linking it to strategic business choices. And managers are having ongoing conversations with their teams to agree, together, how their work supports the strategy and delivers the purpose.

At Brunswick we’re pretty straight with CEOs. We say that asking employees if they understand your strategy is the wrong question. Instead you should be asking employees: “why is our strategy important to you personally, and what did you do today to help deliver it?”

 

Nick Howard is a Brunswick partner specialising in employee engagement. He helps clients influence and support their employees to do the things that add value to their business and its customers.

Phil Drew is a partner in Brunswick’s global Business & Society practice. He helps companies to articulate their significance in the world and how they can demonstrate leadership on societal issues intrinsic to their long-term success.