Mind the Gap
By Christin Rice, Senior Consultant
A zip through any subway system across the globe brings the same caution: mind the gap. It’s a warning to riders designed to ensure they arrive safely at their destination by calling attention to a potentially dangerous oversight—the open space between the train and the platform. Organizational strategy should adopt the same warning.
Regardless of how carefully crafted a strategy may be, everything can be lost in translation. As the message flows down throughout the organization, it becomes particularly incumbent on the leader-of-leader population to bring this strategy to life; to bridge the gap from theory to practice. 92.7% of executives agree or strongly agree that empowering leaders of leaders is critical for effective implementation of organizational change.* The gap here that warrants careful attention is at the critical leader-of-leader level. Leaders of leaders (also known as functional and business unit leaders) are responsible for translating strategy from the C-suite to front-line leaders. And in doing so, they are either the catalyst to realize strategy or the barrier to achieving it.
How do they do this? Allow me to oversimplify in order to clarify:
In its simplest terms (though we know nothing is simple in business), leaders of leaders hold the key to driving the organization forward, backward, or sideways when it comes to translating strategy into desired results through their management communication skills. They do this by translating the message into actionable information that propels those they lead to succeed. Or they don’t and, no matter how much work went into crafting that strategy at the top, execution is hindered.
Proceed with Caution
Strategic clarity can become as clear as mud in the process of communicating it throughout the organization. This happens when the message wasn’t clear to start with, or the messenger lacks the skill or will to pass it on with clarity.
Leaders of leaders are responsible for translating strategy between executives and front line leaders, while simultaneously not necessarily influencing the strategies themselves.
And here is the critical point – if leaders of leaders are not effective in bridging this gap, they risk falling into the chasm and taking those they lead with them. In our interviews with leaders of leaders, when asked what they wish they knew in their first year in their role, “criticality of communications and goal-setting” and “how to be strategic in setting goals,” emerged repeatedly. It’s not always a lack of awareness that creates risk; it can also be related to a skill deficit that could be addressed through formal business communication skills for managers training, 1:1 coaching or mentoring, or other avenues.
Yield the Right of Way
If the strategy is understood, and communicated with skill, the potential for success grows exponentially.
These leaders are the face of the org to front-line leaders and individual contributors, even more than the C-suite. They are significantly more likely to be known by a wider part of the organization than those above them. Which means they have tremendous influence. Our engagement research highlights the connection between engagement and trust in your manager, and how that’s often quite distinct from the level of trust in executives. This population bridges that gap by being more known, and therefore influential in strategy implementation. If your leaders of leaders lack essential management communication skills, your organization’s strategies won’t be translated effectively.
Practically speaking, how does effective business communication occur? Through competence and connection. BlessingWhite’s research shows that leaders across all levels need two critical elements to succeed: competence and connection.
The ability to communicate clearly across audiences and mediums (email, in-person, live virtually) is critical in clarifying the strategy and making it meaningful. Effective communication skills for managers involves refining the message so it is clear to the audience, checking for understanding, and doing it repeatedly. A message sent once is not sufficient, nor is simply repeating the exact same message. 89.3% of senior managers agree or strongly agree that leaders of leaders are the “linchpin” to effectively communicate the needs of senior management to their teams.*
Competence is also required for effective goal-cascading. Simple rules apply here; keep the goals specific, measurable, attainable, realistic, and time-bound. Connect the goals to the overarching goals of the organization and ensure individuals know how their day-to-day goals relate to the strategic vision. Support the goals by recognizing individual, team, and business line performance. Provide support and redirection when needed.
Other elements of competence required in strategy-execution include leveraging business acumen and organizational savvy.
If competence is about engaging the mind of those you lead, connection is about engaging the heart. There are multiple ways to demonstrate connection skills.
Leveraging clear business communication skills cannot be underestimated. Just as critical, if not more so, however, are inspirational communication skills. A vision is only as effective as it is clearly understood. Communicating in a way that inspires action involves being authentic as a leader. It’s not about conforming to a particular mold, but rather deploying your individual strengths and personal values to build relationships, establish trust, and bring others along with you.
Leaders of leaders can do this by sharing an example of what the strategy means to them personally, or one way they are personally invested in realizing the goals. This can help those they lead connect to them and elicit their support in making that goal a reality. They may even want to use a metaphor or story to bring the change they are leading to life. Doing this authentically is more important than doing it perfectly.
If your organization is trying to close the gap between strategic vision and business reality, don’t forget to mind the gap when it comes to supporting and developing effective communication skills for managers and leaders.
*Australian Institute of Management. 2014c. Engaging Middle Managers for Positive Organisational Change.