The Chinese Food of Corporate Leadership

Attaching real change to ubiquitous communications can save you from providing an ultimately unsatisfying change experience for your organization, shareholders, and community. 

The best management science surrounding corporate performance transformation comes with a hefty dollop of behavioral science.

Focus on the people, start with the “why,” ensure purpose, drive for meaning… Anyone who has read the likes Heath, Pink, and Sinek see these soft aspects of transformation leadership writ large.

And they have their place, for sure.

The best transformational leadership and influencing models therefore come not only with tangible change agendas (initiatives grounded in real strategic issues a given company needs to solve) but also in strong influencing tactics, including emphases on structured communications and leadership behaviors to “show” that change is happening.

But, there’s a rub…

With an overwhelming set of tools available for communication these days ranging from in person to multimedia to social media, and with a solid base of “new age” thinking like those listed above directing companies to talk about purpose and reasons for action; companies can have an overweening focus on communication as the action itself.

The result?  Communications are delivered with very high-minded ideals but without much substance or action.

They become a passing thing, kind of like the full feeling after a Chinese food meal.  In 30 minutes, you wonder why you are so hungry again.

Thus, communication without grounding in action is the Chinese food of corporate leadership.

Why is it unsatisfying, and why do corporate leaders go there?

Why has this become the case?  I can list a few hypotheses…

  • Communication is typically deficient – Yes, that’s the starting point that leads to efforts to “lead with communication.”  Leaders are busy. They get distracted from the day to day hygiene of good, solid communication. So, they over correct.


  • It’s fashionable to demand transparency in organizations – It’s actually ok (and, indeed, I encourage it) for employees to seek meaning and reason for their work these days… So, leaders go to communication first because it’s what people want.


  • Communication has become simultaneously easier and harder – Employees can be bombarded with messages, creating a situation where the ease of communicating actually destroys the effectiveness of it (How many of you reading this read every corporate email you receive???  Hmmm?).  So, leaders can resort to it early and often, far easier, in fact than actually creating action.


So, leaders communicate, but they aren’t strategic about it.  They “flood the channel” with communication for communication’s sake.

And, in the process, they create a tone deaf employee base resistant to listening to most any communication.

The implication?  Enterprise-level and line-level leaders have to do a better job of connecting communication with actual action.

But, how? 

The easiest remedy to the Chinese food dilemma is to avoid creating tone deafness from the start by ensuring that strategic arguments delivered to the organization are backed with action.

However, that’s not always possible.

So, the next best thing is to attach communication as an adjunct to good, solid change management.

In one client partnership, we have accomplished this by attaching communications to explicit efforts and milestones in the company’s strategic plan.

We limit the commentary on what is “coming” since many changes that are “on the come” slip into oblivion, and stay very concrete with communications linked to actions that specific people are leading.

In this way, communications that previously might have sounded like “We are upgrading our approaches to product development” start to sound like “This week we launched an effort to re-draw our product prototyping process, led by Jane Smith and focused on providing customer impact in the next quarter…”

In this way, we provide a filling meal of communication and action on the same plate.  We also engage people around real concepts instead of nebulous, amorphous strategy-speak.

You should try it.

But beware:  Trying it may show you how far from action you already are.

1 reply
  1. dawn
    dawn says:

    So true! Leadership communications may come with the best intent, but without substance and follow through, they fail.

    As a note, I’ve found that, when leaders simply can’t share information (such as with M&A or org changes), it can help to share a timeline so associates know when they will get the information.


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