Lessons in communication from Michael Porter

World-renowned expert on strategy and competition Michael Porter has forever changed the language of business. Terms such as “the value chain,” “competitive advantage” and “differentiation,” to name just a few, are bandied about daily in companies across America. In her new book, “Understanding Michael Porter,” Joan Magretta revisits Porter’s strategy essentials in an effort to help the average manager fully understand and implement these often-misunderstood terms. Her premise in writing the book: Many of us who think that we understand these terms and principles, don’t. We talk the talk, but we don’t truly understand what we’re saying.

At its best, employee communications isn’t just about information; it’s about education.

At its best, employee communications isn’t just about information; it’s about education. As I read Magretta’s book, I realized that communicators can gain an insight or two from both Magretta and Porter. For example, Magretta points out that, for Porter, competitive advantage isn’t just about beating rivals – it’s about creating unique value for customers. What does your company do that its competitors don’t do? If you have a competitive advantage, it will show up on your profit-and-loss statement.

As a communicator, do you showcase that unique value? Do you, yourself, readily perceive it? If not, it might be time for a talk with your finance and accounting team. In my experience, an alarming number of employees often simply do not understand how the company turns a profit. A good communicator will educate those employees by emphasizing that information – by communicating the organization’s unique value.

Why do you target the customers you target? Must employees delight every possible customer? Effective strategies target products and services to meet the specific needs of specific customer segments; some potential customers won’t make the cut. Does your average employee understand who the targeted customers are? If not, it’s the communicator’s responsibility to address that knowledge gap. Ask your sales team why you target mid-market versus large companies, for example, or one industry versus another. By asking those questions and sharing the answers, you build employee understanding of your products, your customers, your value and your competitive advantage.

Magretta also notes that, according to Porter, good strategy depends, not on one, but on many choices. When it is left to you, as the communicator, to explain one of those choices, do you do so within the context of the strategy? It may be second nature for the executives making the decisions to see the connection, but not all employees will. Linking the decision to the strategy helps employees better understand the company.

Magretta warns not to over- or underestimate the importance of good execution. It’s likely not a source of sustainable competitive advantage, but a strategy can’t sustain superior performance without it. So make good execution a constant in the employee message mix. Employees who don’t fully comprehend the line of sight from their work to the execution of strategy will at least understand the importance of doing their own work well in support of the company’s ultimate success.

There are so many insights to be had from Magretta’s new book, as well as, of course, from Porter’s definitive work. Most communicators love language – the elegant turn of phrase, the perfect word choice – but we must be careful not to distort the meaning of important business concepts. If we understand and illustrate them, we can make an important contribution to employee education and – more important – to the successful execution of strategy.

© 2019 Betty Henry Communications