Enhancing Company Culture Through Leadership Communication

HCLI Research
Published 7 December 2016

Peter Drucker once said, “Culture eats strategy for breakfast”. Given the importance of company culture, what can organisations do to enhance it? One pertinent step is to develop an inspiring leadership communication strategy. In this article, Jovina Ang shares three tactics for developing an effective and inspiring leadership communication strategy. These include demonstrating “caring leadership”, creating a “big hairy audacious goal (BHAG)” and utilising the “power of human connection”.

Caring Leadership

When Frank Blount arrived at Telstra to helm as its first CEO in 1992, the 93,000 employee-strong workforce who previously worked for two separate companies – Telecom Australia and Overseas Telecommunications Company, were skeptical. No one including myself knew what to expect, especially from a US CEO who had not previously worked in Australia. However, soon, Blount turned the skeptics into admirers.

As the CEO, he was very clear about his direction for Telstra. In order to survive in the newly created competitive environment, he was sure that the old Telstra way of managing had to go. It was evident that Telstra had to excel[ii] in all aspects of management from optimising costs to driving growth and innovation in every business and function. His job was no mean feat, especially to mobilize such a huge workforce and transform Telstra from a government monopoly to a fully competitive company protecting market share.

Blount utilised the power of communication[iii] including the use of repetition to align and persuade the employees. And unlike previous CEOs, Blount demonstrated caring leadership. He and his executive team would spend one day a week visiting every Telstra location to talk and address any concerns of the employees. No question was left unanswered. If a question could not be answered in person, he made sure that the question was answered in an email. He also spent most of his Sundays answering employee emails. This simple act of listening and caring reinforced that he appreciated every question, feedback or comment from anyone in the company. Through this simple act of communication, he was able to connect and inspire employees to transform Telstra to become one of the admired companies in Australia. In just seven years, Telstra’s revenue rose 50 percent to A$18.2 billion and profit more than quintupled to A$3.5 billion[iv].

While building connection is fundamental, demonstrating caring leadership takes communication a notch higher while enhancing company culture.

Big Hairy Audacious Goal (BHAG)

“Big Hairy Audacious Goal” or BHAG, a concept that was developed by Jim Collins and Jerry Porras[v] is a bold mission to commit to extraordinary challenges. Many companies including GE have embraced this concept to achieve greater heights. That said, the effectiveness of having a BHAG would be minimal unless it is accompanied by compelling leadership communication. Let me illustrate what I mean by sharing how Dell South Asia was able to grow its business to US$1 billion per quarter through the “Power of One” campaign.

When I joined Dell South Asia in 2003, the business was growing but in terms of revenue, this region was not considered “significant” because it had not hit the US$1 billion mark[vi]. Because we (I mean the leadership team) had this aspiration for the organisation, we decided to create the “Power of One” campaign to spur the employees to shoot for this bold goal. As a team, we wanted to show Kevin Rollins, Dell’s CEO at that time, which South Asia mattered to the overall success of Dell.

Lots of planning went into the development of the communication campaign. First, we made sure that everyone on the leadership team was aligned to the goal. Second, we incorporated an attractive and exclusive motivational programme.

To kick-start this campaign, we organised a town hall meeting[vii] to share the reasons as to why this aspirational goal was important. The communication did not stop there. In order to keep every employee focused on the BHAG, we made sure that all communication was centered on the “Power of One”. Everywhere in the Dell offices, you would find the “Power of One” screensaver, “Power of One” email masthead, “Power of One” floor decals and standees.

The motivational programme, which we aptly named “The Altitude Club”, provided the opportunity for employees from every function of the business to participate and make a difference. A challenge was laid down calling employees to aspire to be the best-of-the-best as only those who qualified to be the best-of-the best, could gain entry into this exclusive club that was “The Altitude Club”. The rewards were handsome including the opportunity to win a coveted Rolex watch.

Because of the urgency and importance of getting to the “Power of One”, we made sure that every employee knew how the organisation was performing on a weekly basis and who the contenders of “The Altitude Club” were. This weekly tracker also gave us an opportunity to honor and celebrate “small” victories as we journeyed together towards this BHAG.

Before long, within a few quarters, we achieved our BHAG. A big party was organised to celebrate this milestone, to recognize every employee’s contribution and to induct those employees who gained membership to the “Altitude Club”.

Power of Human Connection

Despite being more connected than ever before, most employees today do not feel connected to each other and to their leaders. Instead of picking up the phone or walking to the person that we’d like to talk to, it is quite common for employees to send an email, an instant message, a WhatsApp message and so on.

But, sending one of these messages is not connecting, it is transacting. Because we are wired to connect[viii], research shows that not only are we profoundly shaped by our social environment, our well-being depends on it. This is why leaders need to make an effort to connect not just at the professional level but at the personal level.

How can we connect in this virtual, boundary less and matrixed world of work? One way is to utilise video communication. Video communication highlights not only “the what” of communication but also “the how”. When we focus on “the how” of communication, we can influence how people feel. To paraphrase Maya Angelou[ix]; “People will forget what you said. People will forget what you did. But people will not forget how you made them feel.”

This is why I chose to use video communication when I was tasked to create an inspiring culture at Microsoft Services Asia back in 2010. The programme I launched was called “5-minute Friday”. 5-minute Friday was a video podcast programme that was five minutes long that was aired every Friday at 9:00 am Singapore time. Like a television channel, 5-minute Friday was run in seasons with a predefined number of episodes. It was also programme that connected employees to leaders, employees to each other and employees to success.

Because I launched this programme a month after I joined Microsoft, I wanted to use this opportunity to establish my credibility and cement my position as a senior leader of the organisation. As Michael Watkins and Kevin Norris[x] have shown, achieving small wins within the first 90 days of appointment is essential for success. To this end, I was concerned about executing a highly impactful programme with well-prepared scripts and professionally edited videos.

The programme was very well received because it was novel; and for many employees, it was the very first time that they could see Michiel Verhoeven[xi], my boss at that time, and have a conversation with him. However, after airing a few episodes, I began to hear feedback that the videos didn’t look real and authentic. I was told that they were too perfect or too professional. Employees also told me that they wanted to see the videos of Michiel with “warts and all”. While I strived for professionalism and perfection, it was a double-edged sword as it reduced authenticity. Thus, as leaders, it is better to communicate with authenticity than with the highest standards of professionalism. When do that, we are able to build human connection as a first step towards enhancing company culture.

[i] Favaro, Ken. “Strategy or culture: Which is more important?”, strategy+business, May 22, 2014.

[ii] Peters, Thomas J., Robert H. Waterman, and Ian Jones. “In search of excellence: Lessons from America’s best-run companies.” Collins Business Essentials. 1982.

[iii] Stevens, Anna. “Frank Blount’s leadership adventures and lessons learned”, PMBA at Robinson, November 17, 2012.

[iv] Gaylord, Becky. “Management; American accents in Australian executive suites”, New York Times, November 15, 2000.

[v] Collins, James Charles, and Jerry I. Porras. “Built to last: Successful habits of visionary companies.” Random House, 2005.

[vi] Unlike other Fortune 500 companies, goals were allocated and measured on a quarterly basis at Dell.

[vii] A town hall business meeting is an organisation-wide meeting.

[viii] Cook, Gareth. “Why we are wired to connect”, Scientific American, October 22, 2013.

[ix] Gallo, Carmine. The Maya Angelou quote that will radically improve your business”, Forbes, May 31, 2014.

[x] Watkins, Michael, and Kevin T. Norris. “The first 90 days”. Gildan Media LLC, 2013.

[xi] Michiel Verhoeven is now Senior Vice President, Digital Business Services Asia Pacific and Japan at SAP.

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