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Strategic Narrative: Why Your 'Why' is Crucial to Success

In 2009 the erstwhile government department Business Innovation and Skills published Engaging for Success (more commonly known as the MacLeod Report), a study by David MacLeod and Nita Clarke of organisations across the UK demonstrating high employee engagement and high performance. They concluded that the common factors in all these organisations were the Four Enablers of engagement; Strategic Narrative, Engaging Managers, Employee Voice and Organisational Integrity.

Further reports have been compiled more recently by the Engage for Success team which have validated that the Four Enablers are as relevant as ever and further evidence continues to show the most successful companies in the UK apply these four themes consistently.

A common theme noticed by David MacLeod and Nita Clarke in organisations with both high levels of employee engagement and high levels of performance was a strategic narrative about the organisation that is compelling and authentic, provided by leaders who are empowering and visible.


Your organisation’s story needs to have depth and breadth, but not necessarily length! It needs to enable your people to see the Big Picture, what your organisation’s purpose is, where it has come from, where it is going. It needs to give clear direction, and where your organisation is changing or responding to changes in the external environment, you need to show what will be different, how it will impact your people, and how they will know that the change has been successful. So show your people the landscape around them, and the horizon in front of them. Help them picture themselves in the new landscape. Keep it structured and pithy so that you, and they, can remember and tell it easily.


A story, with a beginning, a middle and a future! Not your personal story but that of the organisation, and the people in it. A story with a clear message and purpose. A story that helps your people feel they belong in the organisation, and makes them want to stay. A story that involves your people in the next chapter. A story that brings meaning and purpose to people’s working lives.


Your organisation’s story needs to be compelling. You want your people to own it as theirs, not just intellectual assent in their heads, but igniting passion in their hearts to work for the organisation’s good and future, which also needs to be their good and their future. Your story needs to include your people in it, preferably right at the centre, and to show them their place in your organisation and its future. You want them to be motivated to join with you in working for the organisation as it grows and changes. You want them to be inspired to give their best.


Your organisation’s story needs to be authentic. You and your team need to believe it, and live it. You need to be able to speak it from the heart. You need to be signed up to it, so there is no gap between what you say in public to staff, and what you say in the privacy of your own office or in the car on the way home. You need to be able to tell it in your own language, preferably without notes, so that you can tell it wherever you are, with teams large or small or just 1:1. You need to tell it in language that resonates with your staff, that uses their words, and echoes their concerns.

You might want help in developing your story in these terms.


When an organisation isn’t communicating to us, we tend to fill the silence. And we often fill it with rumour and speculation. You, as the leader, need to be telling the story, or providing the story you want others to tell. Better still, you and your team should be developing it together. It’s a great way of building trust and building a team. It means every member of the team has a stake in a common story. It means they are more likely to own it and tell it from the heart, because it contains their words, their language. You can all have a voice in its creation.


People in your organisation may think of you as ‘the leader’, but does that mean you alone should be the one who is ‘visible’ and ‘empowering’? If you are the only one, you are unlikely to be empowering your team. The larger the organisation, the more leaders you will want to be ‘visible’ and ‘empowering’ so it is part of your organisation’s culture all the way through, and the easier it is for your staff to ‘see’ and talk to their leaders, and have confidence they are being listened to and their views are being heard.


Some people like working with the excitement of a blank canvass and being told just to do whatever we need to do to get the job done. Some people like working within parameters or boundaries, but still enjoy autonomy and choice in how they work. Very few of us like being micro-managed. Do you like being given autonomy? Do you give autonomy? Does your immediate team feel empowered to do their jobs, or do they feel you are constantly looking over their shoulders? Do they in turn empower their staff? Giving your team freedom to choose how they do the job, doesn’t mean abandoning proper governance procedures, or financial oversight. Colleagues should still be accountable for what they deliver, and how they behave. But empowering them should encourage them to think for themselves, to innovate, to take responsibility to help deliver their part of the future. Empowering staff is about taking a risk, not just feeling like you are doing so. It’s about trust. It’s about making it clear what you are asking your team to do. It’s about acknowledging that not everything might be a success. It’s about allowing team members to make mistakes without blame or retribution. It’s about helping them learn, develop and grow, and you might need to support them in doing that. It is about enabling everyone to create the agile organisation that we all need to be in order to survive and thrive. How empowered do your staff feel? Something to discuss at your next team meeting?


“Everyone knows who I am because I head up the organisation”. Do they? Or are you just a name on a page? Would they recognise you if you walked round the building, or out onto the shop floor, or went to another site? How do new staff get to know your face? Are there photos of you and the management team in reception, or on noticeboards, your intranet, on your messages saying who you are?


In addition to photos, a number of organisations have found the following help leaders be more visible, and to create opportunities to share the strategic narrative:

  • “5 minutes with …” – some key questions answered by a leader about what they do, who they are, what they like doing, posted on the intranet with a photo, so staff can find out a bit about you. A useful ice-breaker for staff when you visit them.

  • A personal blog, where you can regularly tell staff about what you’re up to, giving commentary, your thoughts, and descriptions of events. Some leaders do this every day. Once a week or once a fortnight might be more manageable; probably only every few months isn’t enough. Write it yourself. Some leaders pose questions and allow staff to feedback.

  • An open door hour, once a week/ fortnight/ month where you make yourself available so that any member of staff can book in a 5 or 10 minute slot to talk to them about any issue

  • A weekly brief/ team conversation to share key organisational messages

  • A quarterly face-to-face meeting with staff at all levels to discuss organisational objectives, change, performance and values, followed by a telephone conference for those unable to be there

  • Local site visits to explain and discuss organisational objectives, and change, and to find out about front-line issues

  • “Adult to adult conversations” – meeting up to 15 members of staff, sharing your story, your ambitions about work, asking them to share theirs, discussing how to improve service to your customers, followed by a meal together

  • Breakfast with the boss – as above, but with breakfast; an opportunity to meet up to 10 members of staff

  • “Back to the floor”, where you spend time carrying out the everyday duties of operational staff

  • Just setting the expectation with staff and senior managers, that staff will have an opportunity to speak with a senior manager once a month, and letting them work out what works best. Top tips: defining ‘senior manager’ so staff know who might be visiting them, and taking staff and senior manager feedback on whether it is happening and what is working.

What works best in your organisation? Find out more about Engage for Success and the Four Enablers here.

Michelle Silver and Trevor Norman are Area Network Ambassadors for Engage for Success and are passionate about employee engagement, its positive impact on productivity and about helping to build engaged, productive and aligned workforces in the North East.

If you would like to talk to us about getting some help with developing the strategic narrative for your organisation, please email or

Article credited to Engage for Success.


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