I found in my last four years of being CEO, there was something consistent about remarks coming from all the people we brought into the corporate center to recruit. It happens that the American headquarters for several of our businesses, along with the global headquarters for industrial clients and our construction company, was housed in a building across the parking lot from global corporate headquarters where I was located. Often, prospective recruits who were interviewing would meet executives in both buildings. More often than not, I was one of the last people they talked with.
By the time I met them, the remark they consistently made that always caught my attention was some version of this comment: “I’ve interviewed with numerous companies, but I’ve never been to one where all the executives I meet are able to state the strategy of the company with clarity in such consistent terms and ownership.” I might add, this comment was told to me at least 20 times. Note that they did not say whether they agreed with the strategy, just that everyone could recite it with consistent accuracy and clarity.
I always bristled with pride when I heard that, but also with some confusion. I said to myself: “You mean other companies haven’t embedded the consistent understanding of their company strategy through their executive ranks? Did they not all own their vision?”
So what made that happen in our company? I can assure you that it certainly did not happen because we wanted to impress people we would be interviewing. That was an unexpected positive consequence.
What did happen was that we knew we had a complex transformational strategy. We knew that not all employees in the core business would embrace it because it emphasized new service skills, geographies and client sets that were different from the heritage of the company. Change is always threatening to the existing culture as it creates an unknown. We also knew that we were dispersed across 150 offices and layered enough that communicating a cohesive understanding of what we were trying to accomplish would be difficult. As a result, we knew that consistency of vocabulary and message were vital if we were to have a chance of having the rank and file of the company understand and embrace the vision where we were going as a company.
We published a dictionary of strategic vocabulary terms. There is no “right” or “wrong” vernacular, but inconsistent strategic terminology always leads to confusion. Therefore, we centrally controlled vocabulary. To me, common terminology was essential to any strategic understanding between people within a given unit, much less a globally diverse company.
We then developed what we called a corporate “elevator speech.” The elevator speech was a 15- to 20-minute discussion outlining the long-term goals and strategies of the overall company. In addition, it often included the various units’ roles toward its success. The CEO gave the elevator speech to the top 50 to 60 people at an annual summit gathering. We then required each of the presidents to repeat the elevator speech in their own words, and enhance the last part of their speech where they described the roles of their subordinate units. We actually made them rehearse it to the Chief of Strategy, COO and CEO in quarterly strategy review sessions, until we were satisfied that they had it down. We then asked them to pass the requirement down to the next individual in their chain of command. I think that was the speech all the recruits heard and commented on its consistency.
Low and behold, after about three years, we, as a management team, sounded like we were singing the same song. All the way from the goals of the corporation to the roles that each unit played, we had consistency of message! The consistency of the message included the vital common strategy vocabulary. Then, by the company sticking to the overall strategy for years, we created the sense throughout the company that everyone knew where the company was going. All of the executives were consistently repeating and reinforcing this strategy. I believe this is what the interviewees found so different from other companies.
I don’t know how many companies have elevator speeches of their strategy, but it sure proved effective for us. I can’t see how companies can penetrate the layers of interpretation and re-interpretation without some type of message discipline. Unless the employee interfacing with the client or their peers can feel they understand the company strategy, I believe levels of resistance to change will be much higher. For us, it was a critical component of our change management process. It lowered the internal ‘antibodies’ to change by eliminating the belligerent comment: “I don’t know where this company is going.”
© 2014 Robert Uhler and THE UHLER GROUP. All rights reserved.