The founder/CEO struggle of articulating long-term strategy & vision to the entire company

Much is said and written about the challenges founder/CEOs face when trying to turn their idea into a product into a team into a high-growth company.

Hiring, firing, building an executive team, finding a repeatable sales process, controlling churn etc. all while maintaining a great culture, but one of the most overlooked pieces that I see virtually every one of our founder/CEOs struggle with is effectively communicating the long-term strategy and vision to their team.

This isn’t very challenging when the team is 10, 20 or even 30 people.  Up to this point, you as the founder/CEO are taking great pride in personally interviewing every candidate before they get an offer.  You’re finding people that are mission driven about what you’re building.  They have real passion for the core problem you’re setting out to fix.  They identify themselves as working at your company.

Your employees ‘get it’.  They know what you’re doing and why.

If things at your company are going well, chances are you’ll surpass 50 people within a couple years and you’ll be on track to surpass 150 employees within 3 years.

It is in this phase where effectively articulating the strategy and long-term vision can start to fall apart.

The founder/CEOs realize they can’t interview every employee before they get an offer so they must rely on people they’ve hired to hire new people.  You’ll find people who are mission driven, but they will be fewer than before.  Several will understand the problem you’re setting out to fix, but maybe not as deeply as the initial core team.  Employees will start to have less identification with the broader company and more identification within their specific team (not ‘I work at ABC Inc’ but ‘I work in Account Management at ABC Inc’).

It is during this phase that it is absolutely critical that you build your speaking and presentation skills to ensure you are able to clearly articulate your strategy and vision to the entire company.  To people you employ that you may not have even met yet.  To team members that might be 3 layers down from you now.  Not only is this key for culture and employee retention, but it bleeds into every fabric of your business.  The more employees understand and identify with what you’re doing, they better your company will perform.

I find this important to call out because I have seen it obsessed on (in a good way) by executives in large companies and virtually ignored by founder/CEOs in rapidly growing companies.

OK – the preaching is over.  Time to give some guidance on traps to avoid, suggestions on how to get better and ways to practice.

Traps to avoid

  • ‘I’m a better writer than speaker, so I just send company emails’. Thoughtful founder/CEO emails are great, but as you get big you have to be able to deliver it in person.  People want a real connection.  They want to see the in person passion.
  • ‘I’ve raised a bunch of venture capital, so I must be good at this.’ Not quite.  Financial performance, metrics, market size, etc. all play a big role in funding, but they are less visible (especially in private companies) to employees down the org chart and sometimes less meaningful.
  • ‘We are growing so fast that this doesn’t really matter.’ Growth will slow at some point my friend.  When this happens you want a team that already understands what you’re doing and why, not play catch up.

Suggestions on how to get better

  • Find a peer coach.  Ask those in your network (VCs, board members, friends at other companies) who the best public speaker they know is.  Ideally its another founder/CEO, but doesn’t have to be.  Get a connection, meet them, try to use them as a coach. For example, at Arthur Ventures, we are happy to have founders spend time with my partner Doug. The guys is a pure expert in giving an effective employee all hands.  Its been built on 20+ years of experience of giving these talks to teams of 50 – 2,000.
  • Find a speech coach.  They may not be a fellow entrepreneur, but they can give tips/feedback on all sorts of helpful stuff.  Are your sentence too long.  Are you pausing enough between sentences.  Are you pausing too long.  Are you repeating the same words over and over.  Are you making eye contact.  How to emphasize words, etc.
  • Research.  Nowadays its fairly easy to find videos of CEOs of large companies giving an all-hands talk.  Watch them.  What is resonating, what isn’t.  What are their tactics.  Whether you like what you see or not, you can get some ideas on what may/may not be helpful to you.
  • Practice Practice Practice.  When I worked at Microsoft I was blown away by how much time executives practiced their talks.  It makes sense, there are few opportunities a year to do so.  Say what you want about Steve Ballmer, but at every annual company meeting he’d tell everyone it was the most important day of the year for him.  The one he practiced the most for and that was the most nerve-racking for him.

Ways to practice

  • With any coaches you get.  If you get a peer coach and/or a speech coach, absolutely leverage them for multiple dry runs.
  • With your investors.  They have great insight into your long-term vision and can be a great sounding board.  Just make sure they don’t interrupt you 🙂
  • With your leadership team.  Next to you, they know what will resonate with the employees.  Its also important to make sure they are equally bought into the vision you’re delivering.

In the craziness of growing a company, it is easy to overlook all of this as not a critical priority.  Don’t make that mistake.  It only gets exasperated as the company grows.  If addressed early and thoughtfully, the ability of a founder/CEO to articulate vision and strategy to their team can turn into a real competitive advantage as you scale.

get in touch: Arthur Ventures; patrick@arthurventures.com

 

5 Comments

  1. Love the suggestions for practice. So important to keep it organic! Mixing up the ways you practice helps you know the words you speak for what they mean and not just how you have written them. A one-sided approach to practicing can lead to less authenticity in the actual delivery.

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