How to communicate a new strategy effectively
By Samantha White
Vanessa Harwood-Whitcher, CEO, Institution of Occupational Safety and Health, draws on her extensive experience in the membership sector, as well as implementation of IOSH’s ‘Work 2022’ strategy to provide advice and insight on securing buy-in and building trust among members and other stakeholders.
Clarity and transparency are key to communicating a new strategy to both internal and external stakeholders. “In the different organisations I’ve worked in, we've been more successful when the strategy has been really clear, and there has been strong communication as to what that is. Staff understand that it's one organisation, and everybody is serving the same purpose through the strategy. People need to be really clear about what part they play in that.”
“Being transparent involves helping members and other stakeholders understand exactly why a new strategy is needed – which often comes down to ‘if we just continue as we are, we probably wouldn’t have a membership body for much longer!’ Being honest and admitting when the organisation hasn't made the right decisions helps to build trust,” adds Vanessa.
Securing member buy-in
For Vanessa, when implementing IOSH’s Work 2022 strategy, it was vital to work with the Institution’s 2,000 volunteers, to help them understand the strategy.
“In the early days, we did workshops with them to see what they felt the branches and the sector groups they run could contribute in terms of delivering the strategy. That then started to build the programme of events and thought leadership activities that the volunteers were conducting.”
The easy-to-remember strapline ‘Enhance, Collaborate and Influence’ which encompassed the strategy’s aims, was a hit with stakeholders and helped secure buy-in. “It’s really nice to hear members and volunteers play that back, and say ‘we're doing this because it’s going to enhance our branch members’ [experience].’”
Encouraging constructive challenge
Another aspect of trust-building involved creating a safe environment for stakeholders to ask awkward or ‘silly’ questions, without fear of judgement. IOSH also gave members guidance on how to provide constructive feedback to ensure robust check and challenge.
“We introduced a code of behaviour for our volunteers, based on the Nolan principles of public life, which talks about things like integrity and collective decision-making. It gave them a compass by which they could navigate how to interact with us.”
The power of outreach
When Vanessa and her team saw comments on social media expressing frustration or bafflement with the new approach, they got in touch with the author.
“We phoned hundreds of members to say ‘we're really sorry to see you post that, could you just talk us through what's on your mind? Would you like to give some suggestions of other things we could be looking at? What would make you stay?’”
“Quite often just the fact of phoning people would be enough, because members want that personal contact with you, to be listened to and feel involved.” IOSH asked its volunteers to look out for any members who were not so happy with the changes, and see if they could do anything to support them.
Not everyone will get on board
However much effort you put into outreach and communicating the new strategy, you have to accept that not everybody will be on board with the changes. Vanessa recommends agreeing in advance what percentage of members your governance structure is prepared to lose in the short term.
“I can think of a couple of places I've worked where we've had that very difficult conversation: ‘Are we being true in our strategy to what we want to deliver? And are we comfortable that that will give us the long-term ability to serve our membership that this institution deserves? Yes. Then we're probably not going to please some groups of people.’ That is really hard, but it's a conversation that needs to be explicit.”
However, post-transformation, members’ appreciation of the IOSH value proposition is clear, and by the end of 2022, membership had reached a record high of 49,500. “It's been absolutely wonderful to see the clarity of that strategy and how it's resonated with our members, who have taken some of the strategic aims and made them their own.”
Listening to members has proved fruitful. For example, back in 2017, a frequently heard challenge was ‘Why haven’t you got a proper mentoring scheme in place?’ The Institution created one, and more than 1,000 members have accessed the platform. This is just one example of how IOSH has responded to feedback from members.
“We’re quite excited and ambitious people and we tried to do everything at once, which caused the organisation a few challenges. So my real lesson learned would be get the prioritisation and scheduling right early on, with even more focus on asking: What is the priority? What's going to give the biggest value back to our members, and the biggest impact in terms of our public value?”
Vanessa's advice on choosing the right strategic partnership