Uncertainty — market uncertainty, regulatory uncertainty — can adversely affect the success and growth of a company. But there’s another kind of uncertainty that takes a big toll on performance: the lack of certainty that exists within a company.
More than ever before, people at all levels of an organization need to understand the strategic aims that their leaders are pursuing. Equally important, they need to have a firm grasp of how their own work relates to those aims. No longer is it enough for employees just to “do their jobs.” And no longer is it enough for executives simply to issue orders. Instead, leaders must explain to their people the strategy — the sense of organizational direction — that underlies every operational directive. If your employees aren’t sure about where you stand, or about where your company is heading, then their uncertainty will hinder their ability to help move the company forward.
People within organizations enjoy a lower degree of strategic awareness than you might think; in any case, their level of strategic awareness is lower than it should be. A couple of months ago, we surveyed several dozen participants in an Executive Education program at Harvard Business School. (The program in question, Driving Performance Through Talent Management, gathers executives from every part of the globe, and from companies large and small.) The vast majority of these organizational leaders said that it was “not true” (30 percent) or only “somewhat true” (38 percent) that “employees at every level understand, and are able to discuss, the big-picture strategy” of their company.
Again and again in our research, we’ve observed variations on that finding. In 2007, for example, we surveyed roughly 1,000 employees at Fortune 500 companies about issues related to motivation and engagement. In that survey, we asked respondents to rate the degree to which their “manager communicates a clear strategic direction” to them, and the average score for that question was notably lower than the score for many other questions that we posed. (This survey took place before the 2008 financial crisis, and thus before the current moment of “uncertainty.” Clearly, the kind of uncertainty that bedevils organizations internally is a longstanding problem.)
To raise the level of strategic understanding within their company, leaders must learn to be intentional about the way that they communicate with employees. In other words, they must work to align what they say — and how they talk — with a clear pattern of strategic intent. The practice of communicating with intentionality is one element of a new leadership model that we call organizational conversation. In the more traditional model, leaders treat employee communication as a matter that’s essentially distinct from company strategy. Intentional leaders, by contrast, put a premium on integrating those two components of leadership responsibility.
Here are four ideas that will help you become a more intentional leader.