Susie Wolf might be Kindle’s newest team member, but she’s no stranger to effective strategic communication. We sat down with Susie and asked her five questions about strategy, and how she plans to approach it with clients at Kindle.
Q: You’ve been in charge of internal communications for both Eli Lilly and Company and Aon Hewitt—two large, successful, highly-regarded multinational companies. How does your past experience help guide your approach to strategy now?
A: A lot of people view strategy as this big, ambiguous and potentially confusing concept. I believe we are all strategic thinkers. We have so many options every day—simple things like getting dressed in the morning and choosing a route to work; or larger issues like mapping out our careers and choosing where to live. Without realizing it, we are making strategic decisions on a daily basis, in almost everything we do.
The work I did at both Aon Hewitt and Eli Lilly and Company was largely guided by my psychology background. When it comes to people’s mental health, the stakes are high. As a clinician, the first, most important step is building a trusting relationship with the client. The next step is to do a deep assessment of the presenting issues in order to develop a treatment plan. Next, you implement the plan—always in partnership with the client. From there, you continue to monitor and assess if the treatment plan is working or if it needs to be adjusted in some way.
Strategic communication planning is really the same thing. You build trusting relationships, analyze the issues at hand, formulate plans to tackle the issues, implement the plans, then measure their success. You learn from what works—and what doesn’t.
Q: Can you take us through your process for effectively planning a communication strategy? It sounds like you have defined some steps that help you stay on target.
A: Every project is different, but for me, there are five essential components of solid communication strategy:
1. The first is to Build Trust. I would argue that all businesses, regardless of what they manufacture, sell or market, are in the people business. Trust is the most valuable business commodity. Relationships count! Establishing trust early on with a client makes the strategic communications process flow much more easily. You can never go wrong by taking the time to get to know people—and let yourself be known.
2. The next step is to Analyze and Assess. This phase involves tons of listening to really understand the client’s challenges, objectives and opportunities. You can’t create a real communication strategy without knowing the business strategy, whom you’re trying to reach and what you’re attempting to solve for.
3. Next, it’s time to Develop the Strategy. Now that we have a deep understanding of our communications goals and objectives, it’s time to figure out the path forward. Momentum and decisiveness are important in this phase. How are we going to get to where we want to go? How will we achieve our goals?
4. After that, it’s time to Implement the Strategy. This is where we put our ideas, messages, tactics and creative thinking into practice.
5. Once we’ve implemented the strategy, we need to Measure and Evaluate. This is always the hardest – and often overlooked – part of strategic communication planning. Yet, it’s so important because it helps us determine if we stay the course or make adjustments as needed. We assess if the strategy actually worked and what we should do moving forward. We look at analytics, the business or culture shift taking place and anything else that’s measurable to see what impact the strategy had on the organization.
Q: Let’s talk a little more about formulating the right strategy. How do you ensure you’re on track to really achieving the goals at hand, and what challenges do strategists most often face?
A: I always start and end with the “why.” You can have a plan and a goal, but if you’re not crystal clear on the strategic why, then “what” you do and “how” you do it doesn’t matter much. This is exactly what Simon Sinek talks about in his book, “Start with Why: How Great Leaders Inspire Everyone to Take Action” and I couldn’t agree more.
Unfortunately, there are many ways to go off course when implementing communications strategies or campaigns. The first is that you don’t fully understand your client’s why and you haven’t defined your own. Another is indecision. So often, people are afraid to make the wrong decision for fear of appearing imperfect. Indecision is the enemy of strategy – it debilitates us from taking the necessary, albeit informed, risks needed to move a strategy forward. We have to realize there isn’t one right way to do anything. It’s important that we trust our instincts and keep moving forward, even if it means we fail sometimes. That’s how we learn. And, the more often we keep the “True North” of strategy in mind, the why, the more likely we are to make the right decisions.
Q: Kindle specializes in internal communications. How do you differentiate internal content strategy, in comparison to external content strategy which is more widely written about and discussed?
A: Internal content strategy has more depth and is, in my opinion, a more complicated craft. With external communications and marketing, you can blast out a few key talking points or a flashy headline to what’s essentially a nameless, faceless audience. Internal audiences are complex, intricate and multi-layered. The message is very personal and the number of stakeholder groups can seem almost endless. In internal communications, we’re required to tailor every communication to fit the audience. So, you’re really speaking to each individual about what he or she cares about most. These people have a big stake in the organization and are invested in the decisions made, because those decisions affect them directly.
Q: This is your first time being a part of an agency, and working with clients from a variety of different organizations. What value do you think an agency like Kindle can bring to its clients, and how do you hope to enhance the work that’s already being done here?
A: Strategy is really the anchor to everything we do at Kindle. So much of our focus is around becoming a student of our clients and really knowing them, their business needs—both challenges and opportunities—just as well as they do. Once we develop this deep understanding, and figure out the client’s why, everything else falls into place. Each client has a different why, and that’s wildly exciting to me.
One thing I try to convey to every executive I work with is that it’s his or her hands on the wheel. We’re just there to help. There are certain things in their control, like messaging, and other things out of their control, like the fast-paced, constantly changing external environment. But they’re the ones driving. And what an exciting journey they can take people on if they’re ready!