A New Model for Employee Communication, Part 15: The Strategic Narrative

Posted on October 19, 2017 4:47 pm by | Internal | A Model for Employee Communication

New Model for Employee Communication, Part 15: The Strategic Narrative

This is the latest installment in a series of posts exploring a new model of employee communication, one designed to deliver measurable results that demonstrate the impact on the organization in ways that matter to leaders.

Revised Employee Communication Model

The series:
Part 1: Introduction Part 8: Culture
Part 2: Overview Part 9: Vision/Mission
Part 3: Alignment Part 10: Values
Part 4: Listening Part 11: Practices
Part 5: Consultation Part 12: People
Part 6: Branding Part 13: Place
Part 7: Channels Part 14: Engagement

The four overlapping circles at the center of the model represent the best opportunities for employee communication to affect an organization on a day-to-day basis. This post explores the first enabler of employee engagement strategic narrative.

The Engagement CircleIf there is a no-brainer element of the employee communication model, the narrative is it. Communicators are at heart (or, at least, we should be) storytellers. The strategic narrative is the company story.

If there is any element of the model where communicators can take a lead role, it’s the story.

Not that the strategic narrative is just any story. It requires skill to tell, especially considering that it has no end. It has a beginning (where we came from and how we got where we are) and a middle (where we are now, what we stand for, and more). Instead of an end, though, it has a vision of where we’re headed and how we’ll get there.

The narrative explains what matters to the company. The organization’s values propel the narrative forward along with what sets it apart and how it contributes value to its customers, its employees, and its other stakeholders. If employees and leaders are to understand each other and unite in a common purpose, the narrative serves as the foundation for that cohesion; at every level, everyone should want to be part of the story and help write its chapters through shared experiences.

The Strategic NarrativeThe narrative is also not just one version of the story. The high-level narrative should help employees easily see their role in the story and be able to tell it from their perspective. Managers, too, should know their role and tell their reports the story in terms of where the fit and how they help move the narrative forward. When changes occur, the narrative should help explain them. When faced with a crisis, the narrative should guide the company’s response.

Who is the narrative for?

The narrative is for customers as much as it is for staff. That is, a strategic narrative is multi-purpose.

Beyond that, the most important thing to remember about the narrative is that it is for the audience, not whoever is presenting it. It’s not about the CEO, the brand manager, or the PR director. It’s for the people the company wants to join it on its journey.

In fact, writes Deloitte’s John Hagel, “the resolution of the narrative hinges upon the choices and actions yet to be taken by the audience—the resolution is up to them.”

What are your goals for the narrative?

Ultimately, if you do a great job as a steward of the narrative, people will share it. When people share the narrative—even if it’s only their local interpretation of the narrative—it gets embedded in the company culture. Sharing also enlarges the narrative so it can serve as the connective glue for the many moving parts of a company, giving meaning to the various events and activities that make up the chapters in the company’s story.

For employees (and customers) to want to share the narrative, it needs to inspire, motivate, and ignite the imagination. People should be able to close their eyes and picture it.

How do you get started?

One does not create a narrative out of whole cloth. Rather, you extract the narrative from the company’s history, its values, its DNA. The narrative already exists in your company. Its pieces just need to be pulled from the company’s people, its processes, its beliefs, its DNA and its purpose and shaped into a story people will want to hear, tell, contribute to, and embellish.

Workers sharing storiesThe best place to start the process of pulling the narrative together is with the definition of the company’s shared purpose. Think of the idea of the hero’s journey, in which the hero of a story is convinced to undertake a mission to achieve a seemingly insurmountable goal, facing the many obstacles and adventures on the path to completing the task. In the corporate narrative, that lofty goal is the purpose the company shares with the customer. Company and customer are on this journey together. (Recognizing that company and customer share the purpose helps move the company from perceiving customers as people who buy products or services to co-creators, but co-creation is a topic for another day.) The narrative helps explain how the company-customer partnership will lead to the fulfillment of the purpose. Just as Dorothy partnered with a tin man, a scarecrow, and a cowardly lion so she could get back to Kansas (and in the process help her sidekicks achieve their goals), companies and customers are in this together. With a shared purpose serving as the narrative’s underpinning, employees will never feel remote from the customer. (We’ll get into more detail about how to connect employees with customers in later in this series.)

The company's DNAYour company’s DNA should also be a consistent thread running through your narrative. Just as your DNA contains the history of your ancestors, a company’s DNA is found in the original vision and purpose that drove the founder(s) of your organization as they brought it to life. Sam Walton may be dead, but his vision of “everyday low prices” continues to infuse Walmart’s core.

The real communication work

Crafting the official strategic narrative as told through the authoritative voice of the organization is only a first step. In fact, your organization may already have a narrative. The question is: Is it alive and vibrant or does it sit, moribund, gathering digital dust on some rarely visited page of an intranet, told in a monotone at new-hire orientations and then forgotten?

Evidence suggests the latter for most companies. An analysis by ”>CEB Global Research found that, among employees who are even conscious that the narrative exists, more than half opt not to incorporate it into their messages.

It is the job of the communicator to weave the narrative into the stories we tell (or help leaders tell). Communicators should never view an article, a video, a presentation, or a data visualization as a mere tactical output. We are seeding the story in the culture, reinforcing the narrative and, as a result, strengthening alignment, reaffirming the organization’s direction, and bolstering its brands. An effective narrative influences decision-making at all levels. It inspires actions. It engages employees.

The real work of employee communicators, if we are going to give life to the narrative, is weaving it into the company’s culture. To do that, consider the statistical analysis conducted by CEB Global Research, which found that…

  • Use of the narrative by employees increases 48% when it reflects the values and beliefs of the employees at whom it is directed, points the way to outcomes that matter to employees, and is relevant to the work they do. One high-level version of the narrative is inadequate to produce this kind of employee uptake of the narrative. You need to make it easy for leaders to direct to different parts of the company, for employees to make their own, adding their own stories to it because it has meaning for them. Think, for example, about GE’s innovation-focused narrative, which resonates with employees whether they sell legacy consumer products like light bulbs or develop new technologies with business-to-business potential.

    USAA TV ad
  • Sharing of the narrative increases 48% when it integrates a clear and passionate understanding of how customers use what the company does, how the company solves problems for the customer or creates opportunities or makes their lives better. The people of Harley Davidson, for example, understand and appreciate how its motorcycles fit into the lives of its customers, whether they’re designing new models, working on the floor of a showroom, or assembling bikes in the factory. Watching USAA’s current TV advertising campaign offers up a lesson in narrative: The company and all its employees know their place in the lives of America’s military and their families.

  • Executives must be on the same page about the narrative but also need to understand (as noted above) that the narrative isn’t about them. They must share the narrative so that it has meaning to everyone who hears it, regardless of the kind of work they do or their position in the company’s hierarchy.

  • The narrative is not just for employees. Consistency is imperative among all of an organization’s communication functions. If customers are the company’s most important partners, the narrative is theirs, too. Among customers, the narrative can motivate co-creation and drive brand loyalty (which is diminishing, according to several studies). Investors, the communities in which the business operates, even government have stakes in the narrative, since a living, breathing narrative can persuade stakeholders to make decisions that benefit the organization. Even speeches a CEO delivers to a graduating college class or a chamber of commerce should reflect the narrative.

  • Communicators should create tools that make it easy for leaders and employees to actively use the narrative, whether that means modules for PowerPoint decks, FAQs, talking points, and other resources.

    It all started with a mouse
  • Ensure that, when telling the company’s history, it is aligned with the rest of the narrative. Early innovations, legendary wins, founder biographies, even graphical timelines should create context for where the company is today and shine a light on the vision that drove the founder to set the organization’s wheels in motion. Walt Disney himself probably never envisioned the empire that is The Walt Disney Company today, but even though he might not agree with every decision the company has made, he would undoubtedly recognize the DNA—his beliefs about family entertainment—in what the company has become. And every employee knows that “it all started with a mouse.”

  • If “place” is a key element of organizational culture, it may well also be a factor in the narrative. John Deere, a global enterprise, is deeply rooted in Moline, Illinois. Even though Conagra has relocated its headquarters to Chicago, its origins are firmly in Omaha, Nebraska. Walmart’s ties to Bentonville, Arkansas, are strong.

  • In shaping the narrative, it can’t hurt to keep the “hero’s journey” in mind. What are the challenges the organization faces? What values and beliefs will guide us in surmounting them? Whom do we see as our mentors and our sidekicks and heralds, allies and tricksters?

The narrative is everywhere

Remember the definition of an engaged employee: one who comes to work every day determined to give her best in support of the company’s goals, which are aligned with her own. The narrative is at the heart of engagement. The other enablers of engagement—an employee voice, enabling managers, and organizational integrity—have no context. Do you want employees to treat their job the way they would if they owned the business? They need to know what it is they own. Do you want them to innovate? They need to grasp that their innovations contribute to a well-defined future that they care about. Do you want employees to collaborate? The overwrought sports metaphor is appropriate: employees need to know that they share a purpose and that their combined efforts propel the company toward the achievement of that purpose.

Ask yourself: If the employee communication function is not reaffirming the narrative in everything it does, what is the point of having function at all?

Up next is a closer look at strategic narrative, the biggest no-brainer of the enablers for employee communicators.

The graphics for this series were created by Brian O’Mara-Croft.

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