9 tips to motivate employees at an annual company kickoff

By Patti Sanchez

Woman telling a story at an annual company kickoff meeting.

Internal communication is important to get right any time of the year, but especially at an annual company kickoff meeting. To get traction with a vision, leaders and managers need to create and deliver a vision presentation that inspires employees to act.

In a recent webinar, Duarte CEO Nancy Duarte shared lessons from successful annual kickoffs as well as stories from her personal journey as a communicator and leader. Afterward, Nancy and Duarte Chief Strategy Officer, Patti Sanchez, answered questions from the audience about successful techniques for annual kickoff meetings and vision presentations.

Read on for tips that will increase your influence and impact when communicating as a leader.

Q: How do you approach getting leader buy-in to your vision? Especially for larger organizations where there are 100+ VPs who cannot all be involved in vision creation.

A: When you communicate for change, you need to cascade your vision to the next layer of managers so they will support it and run with it. Executives can’t just stand in their ivory tower to make a declaration and expect it will happen; you’ve got to get your next level of leaders on board with your vision and cascade it throughout your enterprise communication. We worked with a huge brand that needed to roll out a new company vision, but their VPs – the very people who needed to codify it into their initiatives – were not on board. The company’s internal communication team did a survey and found that only 24% of leaders in the company thought the vision was accurate. So we put them through our Illuminate™ workshop, which provides communication training for leaders so they can build an internal communication plan across their different constituents. Their leaders learned how to move each group of people through the five-stage VentureScape™ of change using the right type of communication at the right time. An internal survey conducted afterward found that employees’ belief in the company’s leaders rose by almost 30% and their confidence in the company’s vision nearly doubled from 38% to 71%, so it works!

Q: How long does it take to achieve alignment? What is a realistic goal for gaining early buy in? 

A: It always takes longer than you think to achieve alignment, especially when you are leading change. The bigger the change is, the longer it will take to get everyone aligned behind it because it affects more people in more significant ways. There’s a marketing adage that audiences must hear a message at least seven times before they act on it. The same principle holds true for internal communication for leaders, which means your leaders need to reinforce your vision multiple times before you really start to see traction on it. In fact, you’ll have to repeat it so much you might get sick of saying it – but just when you’re starting to tire of talking about the vision that’s when it’s really sinking in for other people.

You can kick-start your traction, though, by identifying key people inside the organization whose buy-in to the strategy will influence others to get on board. This is why it makes sense to bring your leaders and managers in early to brief them on the vision even while it’s still being shaped. Also, look for other influencers who could help you win more support for the strategy, like star employees that others recognize as a role model or veterans who hold sway with other long-time employees. In our Illuminate workshop, participants do an audience analysis exercise to determine where constituents are on the journey of change which helps them identify who needs to be communicated to and with which messages. You walk away with a clear roadmap for change communication at each step of the journey.

Q: What if the team doesn’t buy into the vision or are clearly against it?  

A: As the leader, you know when something is the right thing to do. But when you are leading change, you will encounter varying degrees of reaction to your vision presentation. There will be people who simply don’t understand your vision and need to have it explained more clearly. There will be people who are a bit doubtful that say “I’ll believe it when I see it,” so you need to give them more reasons to believe it will happen. There will be those who have their heels dug in because they’re deeply entrenched against your vision. You need a different internal communication strategy for each of those audiences. But when it comes to people who are deeply entrenched against the company vision and won’t be moved, it could be they aren’t the right ones to carry you into the future. In his book, Onward, former Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz said that he wept when he realized that some of the people who got his company to where it was couldn’t take it where they needed to go next. It’s hard but sometimes that’s part of the change that needs to happen.

Q: How can leaders who are new to organizations leverage these principles? Is it easier or harder?  

A: When a new leader drops into an organization, whether it’s a CEO or the leader of a department, it launches a new era. These bigger moments disrupt the organization and culture, so you must tread carefully with your change communication. A good way to get the lay of the land before you start to build your internal communication plan is to start with a listening tour. In our Illuminate book we have a case study on Lou Gerstner, who stepped in to lead IBM during a crisis. The first thing he did was something he called Operation Bear Hug where he flew around the country to listen to customers and give them bear hugs. It requires empathy for every leader to understand how everyone feels so you can step in with kid gloves. Unless you were brought in to start a revolution, in which case you may need to communicate your company vision differently. But you should start by understanding your constituents through empathetic listening. You can think about it like the character Jake in the movie Avatar, who became blue like the Navi after he lived with them for a while. Spending time with them changed his perspective and gave him empathy. So, live with your people for a while and then decide what you need to do and say next based on what you learn from them.

Q: How would this apply to CEOs of small startups? 

A: Whether you’re trying to get funding from investors, recruit partners to join your ecosystem, or get customers excited about your product roadmap, you need to communicate your company vision in a way that sparks a movement. So, change communication is an important skill for any leader to have, even in small companies and especially startups. Startups are usually disrupting the status quo in some way which stirs resistance, but the resisters might be outside your organization. When you’re bringing something new into the world that’s radically different than the way things are done today, you’re being a revolutionary. It’s like you’re throwing a Molotov cocktail at your competitors, and they’re likely to react defensively. Companies that represent the old way of doing things will often come out against you with a counter-narrative that attempts to position you as the wrong or risky choice. You need to communicate a clear, compelling vision that rallies your allies to support you and your cause, which is the positive change your company or product will bring to customers and to the world. You need to create a movement, and the frameworks in our Illuminate book and workshop will help you do it. When writing the book, we analyzed all kinds of movements in business and society and discovered the techniques that leaders use to inspire people to embrace change, which are summarized in a free communication toolkit.

Q: What advice do you have for middle managers, who need to inspire their small team in the midst of a larger context that may not be as well defined? 

A: You can use the methods in our Illuminate communication training to lead from wherever you are in the organization, whether you’re communicating up to execs, across to your peers, or down to your teams. For instance, maybe you’re a project manager who’s moving a project along, but you need to inspire teams to get stuff done and you can do that with a kickoff presentation for your project. When you communicate to inspire people even on a project level, the next thing you know you’ll be getting 12 initiatives done while your peers are only getting two done. When you prove you know how to inspire your team so they get lots more done, who do you think will be tapped for a promotion when the next opportunity comes up? But you also must learn to communicate up to executives. There’s a model in our DataStory™ book and the Duarte DataStory communication training that explains what executives care about, which is the things they’re measured on – Money, Market and Exposure. Under Money, executives are moving revenue up and costs down; under Market they’re driving market share up and speed to market down, and under Exposure they’re driving retention up and risk down. When you want to communicate up, you need to communicate in a way that appeals to how execs are getting measured and that starts with empathy.

Q: How do I motivate employees during the current time when market is in low trend and there are many lay-offs in different organizations? Any tips on how to communicate heavy or challenging messages? 

A: When you’re communicating difficult news it takes a lot of time to craft your internal communication plan because you need to think through how they might react or resist. It helps to have a small brain trust of people you can run your messaging by. Give them a taste test of what you might say and then ask them to tell you viscerally how it felt to them and tell you how they think the audience will react. If you’ve spent time in your audience’s shoes, you will better understand how they’re likely to feel about this news and how it will impact them and their families. Then bake into your vision presentation that you understand they’re going through these things. When you know how the audience feels, you can practice empathetic communication, which is key to leading change. You also must increase the emotional appeal in your communication as a leader to inspire people in challenging times because people need more emotional fuel. But you can’t do it in a fake or contrived way; you must show emotion authentically.

Q: How do you unite employees in a talk when there aren’t answers or clear directions? 

A: It’s hard to formulate a clear strategy when the environment around your business is unpredictable, which was especially true during the COVID pandemic. Uncertainty can be scary and can cause people to “freeze” out of fear instead of leaping into action, which can happen to leaders, too. Sometimes leaders hold back on communicating to employees until they know exactly what they’re going to do, but that leaves a void of information that can make people feel more afraid. When you’re not sure what’s coming next, it’s still better to say something than nothing, even if all you can say is “We’re still working through our plans and will update you as soon as we know more.” What you say is important, but how you say it also matters, too. During COVID, Nancy recorded video memos to our employees as part of our internal communication strategy to keep everyone updated on our business plans as the situation evolved. Everyone was working from home and feeling disconnected from each other, so I needed them to see my eyes and the emotions on my face, so they knew I was in solidarity with them. I got a lot of notes from people about the comfort they felt after watching those videos and how it made them feel braver. It was so well-received that we’ve baked CEO memos into our business communication process.

Q: The majority of traditional companies has some restriction to creative actions. How could us change their minds without cause a rupture in the “culture”? 

A: There are constraints on business communication for a reason. For instance, if you’re working for a publicly traded company and you send an internal email that gets forwarded outside, it creates risk for the business. So, to thrive in an organization, you must work within the system’s constraints and map yourself to the culture. But in every culture, there are groups of people who make up the whole and even a single team is an important part of that ecosystem. If you manage a team, you can influence that part of the ecosystem and you can do that by hosting a Zoom call to bond with your team for 30 minutes. Practicing empathy in communication means giving people the emotional fuel they need in that moment.

 

Effectively navigate your team through change.

Written by

Patti Sanchez

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