Source: HBR.org/ Kelly Decker and Ben Decker
Amit* manages a team of 40 people around the globe for a massive tech company. After months of furiously working on a new product to be the first to market, his boss told him that the company’s strategy had shifted. The product’s launch plans were then delayed, and competitors began gobbling up market share. Amit’s team felt deflated. Instead of celebrating a launch, they found themselves mired in more contract negotiations, tactical challenges, and follow-up calls. They doubted the new strategy. Amit had to restore their trust and motivation. He needed to communicate vision.
Let’s clear something up. Amit’s big task was not to set the vision. In this case, the product strategy had changed at the top. His job was to translate the executives’ thinking behind the changes, so his team could understand why things had changed and how they were supposed to redirect their efforts. After all, they were now being told to scrap all the work that was done, go back to the drawing board, and renegotiate every painstaking contract. Without clarity around the why and how, it would be hard for them to execute the new strategy.
There are two things to remember when trying to communicate an organizational vision to your team. First, you have to target your message. Your team in IT has different needs than Susan’s team in marketing. Leaders are responsible for translating the same vision into different messages that their unique teams will respond to. Second, augment logical reasoning with an emotional appeal to inspire. That’s how you get buy-in, and how you shift the team’s response from “I have to,” to “I want to.”
We’ve developed a communication approach that breaks this down into four key components to be addressed: listeners, point of view, actions, and benefits:
Understand your listeners. Step back and think about your team. Sure, you know the player roster well, but attitudes change over time (e.g., from the beginning of a project to the end). Before you start on the vision, take a few minutes to answer the following questions about your team:
What do they know about the current status of your project or goal or bigger strategy?
What are they expecting? How do they feel about the team and organization right now?
How would they challenge the vision? What would make them resistant?
How can I help them? What problems am I trying to solve that will make their lives better in some way?
Find the lede of your story. With the broader vision in mind, it’s time to develop the specific point of view for your team. Think of this as the why behind the message. What is the one thing that you want everyone to walk away knowing? (Warning: Don’t get too granular or tactical. You’re looking for a motivator—some way to get the team to nod their heads and accept the change.) For Amit’s team, he couldn’t default to something as narrow as, “We need to negotiate new contracts for the new changes to our product.” Yes, that was a key element (and it needed motivation!), but that wasn’t an inspiring vision. Instead, he had to make it bigger. “Our current product faced a massive risk of being commoditized. Our products have never been commodities! We must always position ourselves as the leader in this space.”
Point the way. After you have developed your point of view, it’s time to zero in on your next challenge: converting vision into action—or pointing your team toward the right direction so they can make something happen. You don’t have to lay out every step that leads to your ultimate goal, but you have to be specific and set benchmarks and deadlines. Action steps have to be physical, timed, and measurable to pave a way toward the vision that the team can actually see. For instance, Amit’s team had much work to complete over the next quarter. To get them started on renegotiating the contracts immediately, he asked each of them to schedule meetings with three key stakeholders by the end of the week.
Give them a reason to believe. Your message also has to address what’s in it for them—each of them. Too often we provide a laundry list of general benefits that are far too removed to really motivate anyone. Better ROI, increased top-line growth, and greater customer satisfaction are all great for the organization … they just don’t mean that much to us as individuals. Team leaders have to drive the benefit down to the individual level as much as possible. The best way to do this is to connect the dots. Go back to how you described your team. Amit could appeal to his team’s pride in leading the industry, or the accolades they would add to their professional trophy cases: “Look at what you’ll create.” This individual focus engages people’s emotions and moves them to action. After all, logic makes us think, emotion drives us to act.
Emotion can also come from analogies, stories, or concrete examples that illustrate what success looks like. As Chip and Dan Heath describe in Switch, you want to create a destination postcard, or “a vivid picture from the near-term future that shows what could be possible.” Describe exactly what success will look like for your team, so everyone envisions the same goal. They should reach the same answers for questions like: How will a customer feel when they use the product? What will the analysts say? How about kudos from the top? What do the ratings and reviews show?
In order to get his team’s buy-in, Amit had to be more transparent about why the company was shifting to the new plan. He also had to demonstrate that he was listening. So, he explained how individual strengths and contributions from team members would move them forward. This approach helped Amit’s team feel proud and invested, yet again. The change in morale was noticeable across emails and check-ins. His team started building momentum again.
As a team leader, you’re not always the one to set the grand overarching vision, but your role – communicating it and casting it in a way that motivates your team – is essential. Getting your team to see how their work matters on an organizational level will keep them motivated and productive—especially during times of change. It will also reflect well on you as their manager. That’s the value of the vision.