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I wasn’t surprised at all by the results of the US presidential election. Despite Republican conspiracy theories about the polls, I believed most were an accurate reflection of the mood of the electorate – or as accurate as polling can be. And I expected a majority of Americans would gravitate to a moderate position on key issues, and be scared off by some of the extreme, simplistic positions promoted by Republican candidates. What did really surprise me, however, was that Romney and his ardent supporters on Fox News seemed genuinely shocked, even flabbergasted, that Obama had won – and decisively at that.
I suggest the main cause of this surprise was the insular, persistent echo chamber constructed by conservative media pundits, the powerful PACs and the Romney campaign that promoted its own narrative at any cost. As a detached observer (I’m Canadian and therefore cannot vote in U.S. elections) it struck me that the conservative media machine was doing a great job telling their own supporters what they wanted to hear, but in the process they built a parallel universe that filtered out or discounted information that didn’t fit their narrative. They appeared to lose touch with the concerns, doubts and opinions of many voters. Witness the histrionic focus on conspiracy theories around the Benghazi attack in the days prior to the vote while most of the country, rightly, seemed far more concerned about the Sandy disaster.
Perhaps more surprising is that the Romney team went along for the ride. In short, they guzzled their own delusional cool-aid. In the process of pushing their message – again and again – and listening primarily to their fans (and billionaire supporters) while avoiding critics, the Romney team seemed to lose the pulse of the broader electorate. They forgot that the essence of a productive communication process is a dialogue, where listening is a key ingredient in delivering a relevant and credible message.
I’ve seen this same insularity and hubris in corporate settings. Some CEOs forcefully promote and execute their agenda with little care or understanding for their employees’ concerns and questions. They pay limited attention to employee feedback, and rely more on informal sources – often senior staff reluctant to share bad news – which fosters an artificial decision-making cocoon that becomes detached from the reality on the front-lines. As a CEO, losing touch with your audience increases the chance your outreach and policies will be duds, and that your employees will ignore, or worse reject, the top-down dictums.
The lesson here for communication professionals is that it’s fine to have an agenda and narrative you want to promote – even a partisan one – but doing so without careful, constant consideration for your audience and a realistic, open perspective is a recipe for disaster. In this case, electoral disaster. Despite the propensity to rely increasingly on partisan hype – a wall-of-sound of repetitive, shrill advertising and commentary – all the wishing and punditry in the world can’t change the reality on the ground. It’s understandable the Romney team didn’t want to show their true hand, but they certainly should have known their realistic prospects, and spent more time listening to the voters rather than their own hype.
In recent weeks I’ve been involved in several projects that revolve around that challenging, nebulous communication exercise called the “vision thing.” More specifically, I’ve worked with clients to help develop, or uncover, and articulate their corporate mission…or vision…or purpose.
As you can surmise by my last sentence, these type of engagements are often rife with confusing, overlapping terminology and unclear intent. In fact, the very labels used in this type of work usually spark negative reactions, if not yawns, for many employees. Still, this is critical work that can help to direct business decisions and boost employee morale, engagement and productivity.
On the surface, helping a company to crystallize its purpose – or reason for being in business – seems obvious. In fact, shouldn’t a company already know who it wants to be, and what it wants to stand for in the marketplace? In theory yes, but the reality is many organizations don’t have a credible, relevant purpose – or mission statement – that captures their core aspirations and corporate DNA. Even fewer of them have defined their identity and core values. Much of the work I’ve seen in this area is generic, trite and lacks relevance or credibility with both customers and employees. Think of the clichéd values on the wall (sometimes as many as 12!) or the vacuous mission statement with no apparent link to daily operations or goals.
With this context in mind, I’ve developed a short checklist to help organizations develop and execute a valid mission statement:
- Use words wisely – Knowing that many employees (and indeed professionals) are fuzzy about what these words mean and often tune them out, start by carefully selecting and clearly defining the labels you will use. Perhaps the most frequent confusion I’ve seen centers around purpose – which identifies a company’s fundamental reason for being, and captures key customer benefits and/or market differentiators – and strategy – which is a plan of action, or roadmap, to achieve the purpose.
- Connect the dots – A purpose will only make sense, and drive real change, if it’s part of a strategic framework that clearly outlines the various elements of an organization’s strategic plan. There is the purpose, or aspiration, which is linked to the strategy, or roadmap to achieve the purpose. Beyond that, there are typically related elements such as: core values that define the “how”, or desired behaviors; market differentiators; cultural tenets; and so on. Whatever the elements are – since these will differ based on circumstance and industry – their relationship and relevance should be clearly and consistently communicated.
- Don’t forget the brand – Linked to the point above, a purpose should also inform a company’s brand positioning. That means marketing messages and themes should reinforce, if not specifically mention, the key elements of the purpose. Many companies spend considerable time developing their brand essence or positioning, as well as related tag lines or campaign slogans. This marketing approach certainly has merit, but the process – and implicit messages – must be aligned both with the purpose and related themes the company is promoting with employees.
- Be credible – Having a purpose that is a stretch, or aspiration, is fine. In fact, the purpose can be so ambitious the company may never fully achieve it. But the purpose has to be realistic and based on true marketplace advantages and cultural differentiators.
- Walk the talk – As noted above, the key to a viable, relevant purpose is having a robust plan of action – or strategy – that firmly anchors the purpose to the company’s business operations. Everything the company does – all the way down to capital investments, performance reviews and team priorities – should be linked to achieving the purpose. In short, it can’t just be an idea or concept.
- Tell a story – Though in theory a purpose should serve to direct and motivate staff, too often they fail to engage and drive any meaningful action. There is huge opportunity to leverage the inherent passion and pride in a purpose through compelling, consistent communication across all audiences. Companies that do this well use all the tools and sophistication of marketing and storytelling to bring their purpose to life and illustrate best practices and positive outcomes.
- Be disciplined – A purpose isn’t going to do much good if there’s no discipline behind it. It should serve as the North Star for a company, and a litmus test for investment of time and resources. If an activity or investment doesn’t support the purpose, don’t do it.
- Think long term – Many companies often make a big splash to announce their new purpose (or new strategy) but often fail to follow-up with updates and illustrations that provide a sense of progress and success. Though short-term priorities and even strategies will change over time, a purpose should have a long shelf life. The key to sustaining relevance, therefore, is to give stakeholders are sense of if/how the purpose is being achieved, and what impact that is having on the company’s success.