Strategy To Story

Rapport article 13 December, 2015

"We simply can’t force our employees to accept our vision and values, like we did in the past. Strategic communication needs a new game plan to ensure that everyone lives 'happily ever after'."

 By Vida Booysen

Rapport article 13 December, 2015

Rapport Thinkspiration article

Read the Rapport article...

Once upon a time, there was  a management team who loved communicating with their workers by sending out ALL STAFF emails. In these they used fancy words like “vision,” “mission,” “risk management” and “strategy”.

The workers didn’t always understand what these big, fancy words were about, but they didn’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings, and anyway these terms were far removed from their daily reality. If they wanted to resolve practical problems in the workplace, they simply held brainstorms right there on the factory floor. Sometimes they would chat together in the change house– during shift changeovers - about things that they wanted to change and improve. But no one told the bosses about these discussions...that would have been a severe career-limiting move!

Then, one day, a husband and wife, two outsiders, went to have a conversation with the workers on the shop floor, so that everyone could understand each other better and could come up with a strategy for the company together.

The man (the CEO of one of the country’s mining giants for 12 years) is passionate about reinventing the corporate world as a place where people listen to each other. His wife is a creative whirlwind with a passion for writing stories. Her MBA dissertation investigated 
ways in which companies could communicate as innovatively and effectively with their employees as advertisers do with consumers.

Bernard Swanepoel, former head of Harmony Gold, and his wife Tracey’s specialist consultancy THINKspiration, aims to help companies get their strategy understood, and they have a variety of big clients to their name: Sasol Mining, Cell C, Careways and of course Harmony, where “The Harmony Way” became a way of successfully engaging mineworkers in Welkom and fund managers in New York. The Swanepoels distill corporate strategy into a compelling story that speaks to the hearts of workers. “Stories are a universal language that we all speak, they are an innate part of our humanity, and they are an integral part of how we see the world,” 
says Tracey. “These stories are represented visually (in picture form), for example in a cartoon or a roadmap. If you add a picture to a story, you give context and meaning to data and information and you make sure that everyone understands what is meant with 
(sometimes complex) terminology”, she says.

When Tracey and Bernard talk about THINKspiration they complete each other’s stories. Bernard says that Tracey has always told him that when he speaks it’s like he is thinking aloud. “And then I tell her: ‘How do I know what I think until I have heard what I have to say?’ 
And that’s the way we discovered that people approach conversations differently – because each one brings his/her own way of thinking to the conversation.”

Yet another advantage when you get a group of people together to talk about a topic, is that the outcome is so much more powerful than one person sitting behind his laptop to solve a problem. THINKspiration gets companies to participate in real conversations that are happening amongst the workforce anyway.

“If something happens that affects the company, people will discuss it in the corridors. The fact that top management often don’t want to hear what they say, doesn’t change the fact that they talk about it,” says Bernard.

But they (THINKspiration) also listen for positive feedback and try to identify strengths which the company can work with. “People love to have their ideas listened to, and employees often come up with brilliant ideas, that can be incorporated into the strategy.”

Tracey says her previous experience in the advertising industry has taught her how to simplify masses of information, to see what’s important and to package it in a creative way. She began to wonder why companies don’t approach their internal communication using a similar innovative approach. 
“Companies pay enormous amounts of money to advertising agencies to advertise externally, but internally the way most companies get their message across is decades behind.”

The team often uses sport as a metaphor for the challenges of the corporate world. “Look for example at the passionate fans watching a soccer match. They are so involved in the game and their team – every person has an opinion and is not shy to express it. THAT’s the kind of involvement and engagement that one wants from employees in a company.”

If there’s one thing that the Swanepoels feel strongly about, it’s that the corporate world should be a more positive, encouraging environment.“ We simply can’t force our employees to accept our vision and values, like we did in the past. Strategic communication needs a new game plan to ensure that everyone lives “happily ever after.”

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