Back when I worked at The Big Agency, I as in charge of the executive visibility program for the CEO of a major national consulting firm. We had established a general strategy, a message platform, complete with over-arching themes, and had built the program primarily around two tactical areas: speeches and bylined articles.
To any experienced public relations pro, this is nothing fancy. But when done right, it works. With the right foundation in place, the program is 90-plus percent tactical execution.
We had already hit our stride with the program when an intern was assigned to me who wanted to learn how to write speeches. He happened to be African American and was already a good writer. With every intern and new hire I had managed, I tried to find ways to tap their own personal interests and experiences to help them find subjects and projects that set them up for initial success as they learned.
In this case, in the course of one conversation with the intern, it became clear that one thing that was lacking in that executive visibility program was concerted outreach to minority communities. Strategically, the firm would have benefited by using the executive visibility program to connect with potential decision-makers and new hires. This was before the DEI programs of today, so the firm had no real formal inclusiveness program at this time.
I saw this as an opportunity for both the consulting firm and the intern. I had already done some pro bono work of my own for the UNCF and was somewhat familiar with the country’s historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs). So, I asked the intern to reach out to three or four that I knew had really good MBA programs.
The assignment was simple, identify speaking opportunities before MBA students and their instructors to start to build a bridge between the consulting firm and the universities. My hope was that this would open up a pipeline for talent recruitment that would benefit both the firm, and the colleges and their students. Secondarily, and more long-term, I also saw this as a way for the consulting firm to become top-of-mind for these sought-after MBA students when they eventually would take their place as leaders and decision-makers.
In the course of this, I wanted to show the intern how to convince CEOs and others in the C-suite to buy into a strategic direction through the normal course of business. More to the point, I wanted to show the intern how to use existing tactical programs to influence larger strategy.
How to Sell Strategy
There are two ways to sell strategy. The first is the one most people think of. Conduct research, have brainstorming sessions, do the relevant analysis, narrow it all down to a direction, and build out from there.
This is often a time-consuming and expensive process, one often fraught with internal turf battles and egos that when combined can kill ideas and the best of intentions.
Sooner or later, the strategic planning process ends up with a discussion of messaging, tactics, execution and measurement.
Leaders are fully aware of this, so it’s not uncommon that when you tell a CEO you want to revisit “strategy” you get put off. They try to kick the can down the road because they know that once they agree to revisit at the fundamental strategies, it could cost lots of time, money and organizational angst. They’d rather not deal with that now, not when they have other problems that are more pressing.
The other way to sell strategy is to do what we did here. That is to use an existing tactical framework and already approved program to insert some new messaging, expand to some new audiences, and make new connections.
How it Worked Out
Once the intern made inroads with a leading MBA program and secured interest in having our CEO come speak to a large group at that school, I worked with the intern to take our core speech and customize it to the audience. We collaborated and co-wrote the speech for that CEO, and then followed the usual steps of approvals, logistics, etc.
The things I wanted to teach the intern was not only how to place and write a speech, but also how to obtain a CEO’s buy-in to a new approach.
I remember telling the intern that we could conduct all the formal research in the world, create presentations and try to make our case as to why his firm should devote more attention to students at HBCUs, and while he’d take it under advisement, it would have to wait behind every other decision that wanted this attention. But by having him go out and speak, and meet with HBCU students, he’d come away so impressed with the school and the students, that he himself would buy in to the nation that his firm needed to do more to establish connections with these students and universities.
That’s exactly what happened. The CEO went out, gave the speech, and it was a hit. It wasn’t a canned speech. It spoke to the audience on their terms. The CEO had received a warm welcome from faculty and students, and was told that his firm was the only firm in that industry that had actually taken the time to proactively reach out to the school and build that bridge. They appreciated it, and he could see that. He could also see the potential for a more formal relationship between his firm and the school.
He’d improve his recruitment and retention efforts, and the school now had a new pipeline for its graduates into this prestigious consulting firm.
But on a more personal level, the CEO just felt good about it all. He felt like this was an opportunity for him to help improve in some small way in the social condition.
He came back to us with his feedback after the speech, which was all positive. He now wanted to institute a formal recruitment program aimed at HBCUs, and he did just that.
Tactics Can Inform Strategy
Sometimes, one of the easiest ways to sell a new strategy is to incorporate it into an existing tactic. You can trial-run that strategy to see what worked and what didn’t, and then to adjust as you go. In this way, the ultimate question isn’t whether some grand strategy was a success or failure, but how that strategy could be made to work in the most practical terms. The real world becomes your lab. The tactic becomes your proving ground. And if the strategy is any good, it takes hold.
Would you like to talk strategy? Get in touch.