Every company needs a strategic narrative – here’s why
Many (actually most) companies lack a strong strategic narrative.
In my first years post-Tableau, while transitioning into advising, board work, and speaking, I met with literally hundreds of executives. Over these coffees, meals, and happy hours, I sat down with over 100 CEOs, more than 30 venture capitalists and private equity investors, and dozens of founders and go-to-market leaders to discuss best practices for growing and scaling a high-performing team.
The vast majority of these leaders were leading companies with disruptive and compelling products, with vast market opportunities. Yet, they all wanted to scale bigger, faster. And most felt they could be better at communicating their story to the world.
Digging in, it was clear that many of these companies had internal alignment issues. Sales, Marketing, and Product teams were often on different pages. They had different ideas about what they should be building, who they should be selling to, and what exactly their future should look like.
When invited into a company, I’d meet with multiple members of the executive team — founders, CEO, chief revenue officer, chief marketing officer, CFO, sometimes the head of HR. I’d ask each person to share the company’s mission, vision, and story. To share why their company exists. Believe it or not, a significant percentage of the time, each person would have a different answer. Baffling, I know!
Without a unifying strategic narrative, everyone had their own unique opinion of the company’s mission and why. When five people say (and believe) five different things, it’s no wonder why people are racing in different directions.
Building and scaling a company is tough. If people are not aligned with where they are headed, this becomes nearly impossible.
Your strategic narrative is your company manifesto. It serves as the North Star for everyone at the company, permeating everything you do from product roadmap, to customer conversations, to website and branding, to industry and investor analyst discussions, to recruiting, and the list goes on and on.
Your strategic narrative communicates who you are and why you exist. It is critical to get this right.
Where companies get this wrong:
1. They start with product—not with “why”
Early on, a company sells to early adopters — people who are enthusiastic about the category and who already believe what you believe.
Most companies are good at communicating their how and what. They can talk all day long about their products and features. This works well for early adopters. But once you start selling to people who aren’t already proactively searching for what you have, the how and the what is not enough. Features and functions just don’t cut it.
You need a purpose — a story that inspires people with your why.
In one of the most influential Ted Talks of all time, Simon Sinek explains the value of starting with “why” —communicating and selling your overarching purpose. In the long run, a purpose-based narrative always beats product-based messaging.
2. Their value propositions aren’t truly differentiated
After asking executive teams to explain their value propositions, I would look at their competitors’ websites. Much of the time, the competitors made nearly identical claims. The sites all looked exactly the same. You could flip out the names of the companies, and the websites seemed eerily similar. Everyone professed the same value propositions; one company was interchangeable with the next.
Companies need differentiated value propositions. Your unique values that truly differentiate you from the others must pop in your strategic narrative.
3. The organization is disconnected and misaligned
Without a unifying strategic narrative, your organization becomes disconnected. The C-suite, board, and employees may all agree on the company’s overarching priorities, but departments still tend to operate in silos.
I like to use a map analogy. Say we give everyone a map of New York City. then, we say “go!” So everyone races fast, but they may all be headed in different directions. Yes, everyone is clear on the overall vicinity. But New York is huge! Instead, let’s say you told everyone to go to the Statue of Liberty. People may suggest alternate paths to get there, but at least everyone is headed to the same destination.
We need to provide the north star. People must know more than the general vicinity we want them to go. Everyone needs to be aligned on the final destination, so they know exactly where they should be headed.
Being aligned on the bigger picture not only helps your employees. Buyers are increasingly more likely to purchase from companies with a strong sense of purpose and direction.
So, what are the key components of a strong strategic narrative?
As I wrote in a previous article, mission and vision provide purpose and direction.
Your mission really does matter. This provides a unifying purpose for why the company exists, providing your True North and a roadmap to get there. In 6-12 words, mission statements convey the essence of your personality and core values. At Tableau, our mission was, “We help people see and understand data.” Gong’s mission is to “Unlock reality to help people and companies reach their full potential.”
Boiling your essence down to 6-12 words is no easy task. It’s much easier for companies to communicate their what and how, which is why many companies skip defining, aligning, and communicating a core mission statement. But, this is critical to provide purpose and alignment to all constituents, including your employees, customers, partners, industry and financial analysts, and the community in which you serve.
A mission exercise can’t be done overnight. Don’t force or rush it. You need your entire executive, product, and go-to-market teams committed to investing time together to get this right. In my experience, 2-3 months is a pretty fast timeline for mission and vision projects.
2. Founding story
The founding story revolves around why your company got started in the first place. It answers the question: what problem was so important that our founders decided to take a significant risk and devote their time and energy to solving it?
For Gong, it goes like this.
Gong’s Founder and CEO Amit Bendov was previously CEO of an analytics company. Everything was going well. But one quarter, the company missed its number, and he couldn’t understand why. He asked people on his team, but nobody could effectively explain what happened. People gave him all kinds of opinions, not facts. Amit looked in the CRM, but this didn’t tell a full story either. He listened to some recorded calls, but he couldn’t listen to enough or assess sufficient trends to really tell him what was happening.
He thought, I can’t be the only one who’s having this problem. My sales team is telling me what they think is happening — but is it true, or is it just opinion?
He hooked up with Eilon Reshef, an expert in Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning, to build a technology platform that leverages data and reality to assess what was really happening with customer conversations. And just like that, Gong was born.
Every company has a founding story. But, because this story doesn’t communicate all the features and functions of your product, many companies leave this founding story out of their strategic narrative altogether. But this is a big miss. The founding story is a crucial part of the narrative foundation which highlights the company’s purpose.
3. Description of the status quo
What’s the current state around the problem you solve? What’s the problem, and what are the most common frustrations it causes? List three to five challenges companies and your prospective customers have with the current status quo. This description of the status quo should articulate the frustrations that your company and solution can uniquely solve.
4. Desired state
What would things look like if the challenges with the status quo were all addressed and resolved? List the corresponding three to five desired benefits — the exact opposites of the status quo challenges — that would characterize a better reality. Just as the frustrations with the status quo map to the challenges your company can solve, the benefits of the desired state should lay the foundation for how your company can help.
5. How to reach the desired state
Only now do you introduce your company and start talking about your products. Wait until after the prospect or customer confirms that they believe what you believe. That they are frustrated with the status quo as you describe it, and that they are interested in moving to your suggested desired state. If this is true, you can now introduce your corresponding three to five truly differentiated value propositions, along with how they will help achieve the desired state.
Where most companies go wrong is introducing the problems and the company’s solutions without framing it in terms of a bigger picture first.
When companies have a strong strategic narrative: It unifies and aligns the entire organization, motivates employees, attracts and retains top talent, and frames all activity with a unifying sense of purpose which helps emotionally connect with all constituents.
When companies lack a strong strategic narrative: It creates a narrative vacuum, allowing competitors, industry analysts, and financial analysts to control and dictate the narrative, causing the company to become reactive and without a unifying sense of purpose.