When a leader — be it a president or a CEO — huddles with a speechwriter to determine exactly what to say and how to say it, he would do well to recall the example of Winston Churchill. As Oxford philosopher Isaiah Berlin wrote in Mr. Churchill in 1940, “The Prime Minister was able to impose his imagination and his will upon his countrymen. . .and lifted them to an abnormal height.”
Furthermore, and here’s the key point, Churchill made the British people feel as if they were part of the action and vital to the cause of victory. Churchill gave voice to personal involvement, or what we might today call “engagement.” That is the challenge that every leader faces when pushing a significant change initiative.
Communication is critical to creating engagement, and toward that end I offer the four-step communications model for creating buy-in that I discuss in Great Communication Secrets of Great Leaders.
1. Inform. Explain the situation in terms that are both general and specific. Generality provides context; specifics provide expectations. For example, make the case for your initiative, ask people to support it, and tell them why.
2. Involve. Once people understand the facts as well as what is expected of them, they decide to participate or not. Critical to gaining commitment is communicating “what’s in it for me” (WIFM). You must make the specifics clear, and show what people will gain by supporting your initiatives.
3. Invite. Once people understand what is expected of them, ask for their support. Never assume people will follow you until you ask them. Be specific and persistent as in, “Can I count on your support for this initiative?”
4. Ignite. This final step is not always possible but it’s one that separates the ordinary from the extraordinary. It is when you invoke, as Churchill did, the commitment of individuals to pull together for a cause greater than themselves. Excite the imagination by talking about what will happen when your initiative is a success.
Keep in mind that these steps are dynamic. That is, a leader can move from one to another and back again to inform, understand, and push for commitment. It is a fluid process that requires a combination of will, patience, and fortitude to execute.
One further point: never assume that once people buy into the process, and understand the WIFM, that you can stop communicating. That was the genius of Churchill. His speeches throughout the war years were designed to rally the British and they did that through his use of a brilliant combination of rhetoric and storytelling. Churchill made his followers feel vital to the cause.
That is the challenge facing any leader pushing through a significant change initiative. Make people feel as if they have a role to play and know why their participation matters. Asking people to become involved is essential to getting people behind the leader’s message. Doing this turns support into action.
First posted on HBR.org 9/03/2009