The compelling corporate strategy of aiming higher

Fourth in a series on communications strategy.

That most democratic of encyclopedias, Wikipedia, defines strategic communication as “communication aligned with the company’s overall strategy, to enhance its strategic positioning.”

Most corporate communicators, I would imagine, would take little issue with this straight-forward definition. But I believe it falls short in two critically important ways:

First, it asserts that communication becomes “strategic” by being aligned with corporate strategy. Certainly, this alignment is fundamental, as I’ve stated in the previous posts in this series. But communication should also be strategic itself, and it should be an important input into the formulation of the corporate strategy. Corporate strategists should not develop the game plan in a vacuum, then hand a copy of their meeting minutes to the head of PR with the command: ”Go forth and align your communication plans to this!”  (More in my next post about the importance of reputation management being actively present “at the table” helping to develop and execute corporate strategy.)

Second, global competitive forces have pushed corporate strategy to out-grow its old-school definition linked to ”strategic positioning.” Strategy not only is about developing a long-term game plan to successfully position the company in terms of cost, customer and competition–it also provides the dynamic piloting of an adaptive, learning organization. It’s less about paddling a boat across a calm lake than about guiding a crew of rafters down a white-water river with not-always-predictable currents.

The need for strategy to be dynamic is readily apparent when the rules of engagement change in visible ways (a new competitor arrives on the scene; a new regulatory environment creates constraints and opportunities; a disruptive invention alters the basic assumptions of the industry).  Equally obvious is the observation that few strategies are executed exactly as envisioned, and communications plans may need to be altered along the way. You make course corrections to a message strategy to reflect the new realities while staying true to the corporation’s enduring values (easier said than done).

But there is a deeper reason for dynamic strategy beyond adaptive course correction. Adaptive learning keeps the strategy relevant as the game changes, but what Peter Senge called “generative learning” provides meaning to the enterprise essential to the full engagement of its people. The corporation does not execute its strategy with faceless automatons but with thinking, reasoning and feeling individuals with varying degrees of commitment and engagement. The organization is at its best when its people are fully involved, taking ownership in the meaning of their work, knowing that “someone at the top” is listening to their observations and thoughtfully considering their ideas.

When you ask people about what it is like being part of a great team, what is most striking is the meaningfulness of the experience. People talk about being part of something larger than themselves, of being connected, of being generative. It becomes quite clear that, for many, their experiences as part of truly great teams stand out as singular periods of life lived to the fullest.  (Senge, The Fifth Discipline: The Art and Practice of The Learning Organization, 13)

For Senge (named a ‘Strategist of the Century’ by the Journal of Business Strategy), the learning organization excels because it encourages its people in their individual quest for deeper understanding, aligned with the values and objectives of the enterprise. (Therefore, I would add, strategic communications aim to foster the active engagement of employees and other stakeholders in the dynamic development and implementation of ideas critical to the success of the enterprise.) Senge identifies in individuals a thirst for ever-higher levels of excellence in their work, something he called “personal mastery.” Mastery isn’t the achievement of perfection in the tasks that make up our work but the continual striving itself:

People with a high level of personal mastery live in a continual learning mode. They never ‘arrive’. …It is a process. It is a lifelong discipline. People with a high level of personal mastery are acutely aware of their ignorance, their incompetence, their growth areas. And they are deeply self-confident. Paradoxical? Only for those who do not see the ‘journey is the reward’. (Ibid: 142)

A long-term corporate strategy could deliberately seek to create a culture of innovation and deep personal commitment to a higher mission. It would identify clear markers of success along the way to provide direction and the means of accountability, but its focus would be on a compelling vision. 

When there is a genuine vision (as opposed to the all-to-familiar ‘vision statement’), people excel and learn, not because they are told to, but because they want to. But many leaders have personal visions that never get translated into shared visions that galvanize an organization… What has been lacking is a discipline for translating vision into shared vision – not a ‘cookbook’ but a set of principles and guiding practices….The practice of shared vision involves the skills of unearthing shared ‘pictures of the future’ that foster genuine commitment and enrolment rather than compliance.. (Ibid: 9)

Corporate communications, strategically aimed at fostering this “genuine commitment” through generative learning, plays a pivotal role in developing this culture of excellence. And that in turn, provides deeper meaning and satisfaction to the role of communicator. And that sure beats writing predictably boring copy for the employee magazine or the Annual Report!

- Jon Harmon 

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