Implementing Strategy through the Coalface

Lots of words are used to describe business strategies. There are ‘growth’ strategies, ‘breadth’ strategies, ‘holistic’ strategies, and my personal favourite, ‘tactical’ strategies.

When you ask the people right down at the coalface, however, you tend to get a different set of words used, including ‘unclear’, ‘wrongheaded’, ‘fuzzy’, ‘bizarre’ and ‘they must have been completely out of their mind when they thought that would work’.

So why do employees tend to have a different view of a strategy when compared to a senior management team? Partly, it’s because the information about a strategy, its goals, and its components usually doesn’t reach those employees until it’s gone through a few filter layers first (see below):

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Employees rarely see the strategy itself—instead they see the following:

  • Communications from Senior Management/the project team about the strategy.
  • The actions of Senior and Middle Management as the strategy is executed.
  • Directives from Senior Management, as filtered by Middle Management.
  • The influences exerted by the Performance Management System, where one exists.


All of these things affect how an employee views the strategy being espoused by their managers. To be effective, then, managers need to apply the following principles to their communications, actions, directives, and the design of their performance management system.


How should I communicate?

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Communication about your strategy needs to energise and rally your employees around an idea. Communicate with a mixture of passion, symbols and facts. If your communication lacks passion it will lack conviction. If you don’t have passion about your strategy, how can you expect anyone else to? Use symbols as a rallying point. Symbols may be a logo or a tagline or a phrase. Using numbers to symbolise the goal of the strategy works well. For example “20×15” could represent 20% market share by 2015. Use facts to provide a baseline for belief and a means to measure progress.

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Beyond what you’re talking about, think about how you’re communicating as well. In order to build belief amongst your staff, use more personal two-way channels (e.g. Q&A sessions, interactive chats, personal briefings) rather than impersonal one-way channels (e.g. brochures, emails, memos). People begin to pay attention once you begin treating them as individuals. Keeping everything impersonal simply alienates members of your staff; you risk them substituting their own interpretations for what you could have told them directly, had you been available for them to ask.


How should I act?

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Actions do speak louder than words.

Be insistent on levels of performance expected from your staff to give them an understanding of the boundaries that exist—about what is acceptable and what is unacceptable. Most staff self-regulate when they have an insistent leader.

Be persistent. This means being insistent all the time—not just around performance review time, or the end of the month, or when the reporting is due. A persistent leader drives performance from their staff all year, not just in isolated pockets.

Be consistent. This means expecting the same results from all of your staff—not letting poor performance slide because an individual is ‘usually’ a stellar performer, or conversely throwing a party when a poor performer manages to meet their expected targets. Leaders who are consistent inspire the same quality performance from all their staff.

When you are consistent and persistent but not insistent, the drive for individuals to perform fades, and individual efforts rule the day.

When you are consistent and insistent but not persistent, frustration results as you expect great performance some of the time, but appear not to care the rest of the time.

And if you are insistent and persistent but not consistent you create confusion as the goalposts of ‘good’ performance or behaviour seem to shift depending on the individual.

It’s only when you are consistent, persistent and insistent that you can expect sustained high performance from an empowered team.


How do I give direction?

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Cascading directions from the strategy for staff to execute is insufficient unless the authority and capability to execute accompanies the direction.

Provide staff with both the capability (e.g. through training) and the authority (e.g. the budget, independence of decision making and the availability of data on which to make decisions) to complete the tasks you assign them.

If they have the capability but you starve them of the authority they will grow frustrated by the apparent micromanagement. If they have the authority but not the capability, expect errors in decision making as they apply their best efforts. If they have neither, don’t expect any ongoing interest in your strategy.


How do I manage their performance in executing the strategy?

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Performance management systems need to be both clear in what they apply to and the standards that are expected, and consistently enforced. Without one or both of these factors, staff become disinterested or frustrated with the system, or you will get patchy results in the execution of your strategy as some staff take the strategy on board and others don’t. It is only when the performance management system is both clear and well- and consistently-enforced that it begins to do what it should, and drive improved performance.

In executing a strategy, leaders must be mindful of their communication (both in content and channel), their actions, their direction and the support they provide to employees to allow them to follow that direction, and their performance management system. Having any of these items either incongruent with your strategy or poorly executed makes your strategy unlikely to succeed.

Change Factory can help you to design and implement a robust implementation plan for your strategy, making change easy.

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