Change gear

As a Senior Executive, you will almost certainly be working to a plan. With a 3- or 5-year horizon driven by a vision, and a 1-year plan giving greater detail on the mission.

This will contain statements of intent, defining what the organisation plans to do. Setting parameters for action, supported by metrics. If you re-read your plan, you may realise that these statements are written in quite absolute terms, using the emphatic language of command:

‘Deliver the best customer experience in the category.’
‘Ensure full compliance with Regulatory requirements.’
‘Increase monthly average production by 250 tonnes.’

At this level (the sharing of higher strategy among peers) this type of language is fine. If it sets expectations that will be hard to live up to, experienced seniors understand that the business year will surprise them with many variables. Some will work in their favour, others will not. But they hope that on balance the majority of their intentions will have been achieved by the end of the period.

But when seniors share this information with subordinates, they sometimes forget that juniors don’t share this bigger understanding (and acceptance) of what is likely to happen. They only receive commands, framed in absolute terms, that set a binary context for their life and work. Either we’re going to succeed, or we’re going to fail. If we succeed, we will be safe, but if we fail there will be consequences.

So, when it comes to ‘cascading’ business strategy, it is important to consider shifting down a gear to choose language that is more appropriate.

Take the word ‘ensure’. It sounds great at Executive Board level. A bold commitment, a guarantee that something is going to happen. But when you cascade it down, you might want to consider that it also means ‘to put in place measures that will secure success.’

Encouragement is one such measure. When you encourage, you give people the confidence to do something new. There’s a tacit understanding that, while the task may be difficult, you believe they can tackle it. Encouragement means beginning the task with a dose of inspiration then sustaining the team – however long the journey. There will be points in the year when they will need to be reassured, refocussed or reanimated. So, a sentence like  ‘Encourage all staff to deliver a more thoughtful customer experience’ implies that you, as the senior person responsible, will share the journey with them. It also gives them a big hint about how they might achieve success.

In modern businesses, the language of command and control is being replaced with words that make willing collaboration possible … and more likely.