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The Top 3 Strategic Communication Fails Are at the Top of the Food Chain

Mike Kohler
Author:

Mike Kohler, Online Faculty

It’s so easy to pick on ivory tower leaders. And safe, too.

Easy – because the most significant strategic communication fails can be traced to the top of the food chain.

Safe – because we, the chattering class a notch or two down the food chain, are not likely to be exposed because one of the Top 3 Strategic Communication Fails is the blind spot effect, i.e. senior leaders who are listening-challenged aren’t paying attention anyway. The great leaders my students and I read and write about tend to be great listeners.  But I won’t spend time dwelling on that topic because to do so may betray weakness on our part as communicators.

And I will discuss only briefly another of the Top 3 Strategic Communication Fails - the failure to be strategic. As a “ready, FIRE, aim” type, I’ve been known to remark snidely that “strategy without action is just daydreaming.” The appropriate retort by more deliberate colleagues would be “action without strategy is just chaos.” Still, my observations from many years in the corporate arena is that over-emphasis on strategizing can be like quicksand. Oh, the hours we can spend in deliberation, basically planning to plan to plan.

Don’t get me wrong … I think strategy is essential, and even fun, given how intellectually stimulating strategy can be. And that’s the danger; it can be downright luxurious.

I think the proper balance is to be strategic in setting the road map, but then spring toward action when you have an MVP (minimum viable product). I’ve always valued the brilliant observation by Karl von Clausewitz, a Prussian General who said, "The enemy of a good plan is the dream of a perfect plan."

Topping my Strategic Communication Fails chart is the accountability gap at the very top of the org. chart. I refer to this gap when I facilitate a favorite leadership communication workshop on what I call “The Communication Cascade”.

The Communication Cascade is based on a waterfall metaphor in which the energy from the top is cascaded down through each descending level until you have a vibrant, bubbling pool at the bottom, hence the “bubbling up” effect for which organizations strive, or should strive.

Theoretically, that all sounds great to many organizations. They embark on what they label as cascading information through the organization, but because of an accountability gap, the bubbling pool ends up being stagnant and layered with pond scum.

So where is that accountability gap and how is that gap created?

It’s at the very top, specifically among those who report directly to the CEO or owner.

Most commonly, the owner/CEO has a vision (small “v” for a reason) for the organization, and it’s been my experience that the top leader can express it pretty clearly and succinctly – and without commissioning high-priced consultants to do many long days of team-bonding and Visioning exercises and filling flip chart pages full of high-minded concepts and developing slogans that result in mass quantities of t-shirts, coffee cups and posters littering the workplace!!! (Does that sound like Howard Dean after his Iowa caucus defeat?)
 
So anyway, before going off on my mini-rant, I noted that if you want to know the vision, just ask the boss. ‘Nuff said!

But the next logical step should be to have the direct reports in all functional areas tasked with evangelizing the messages to their respective work groups at all levels. Sadly, that doesn’t happen enough. The direct reports don’t have that responsibility built in as measures in their performance reviews.

Even worse, the messaging is delegated either to Human Resources to send memos to employees or to Sales/Marketing to hold charming pep rallies.

If vision and mission matter, leaders must equally share the responsibility for conveying key messages throughout the ranks. And they should do it like one of my best bosses ever did it.

She had a great litmus test. Without a set plan, she would ask any front line employee, just in passing, a question about vision and mission. If the employee was clueless, someone was in trouble – and it wasn’t the front-liner.

If evangelizing is part of a top executive’s bonus plan, guess what – it’s gonna get done!

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Mike Kohler is a member of the online faculty of Purdue’s online Master of Science in Communication degree program. The program can be completed in just 10 courses (20 months) and covers numerous topics critical for advancement in the communication industry, including crisis communication, social media engagement, focus group planning and implementation, survey design and survey analysis, public relations theory, professional writing, and communication ethics.