Context before content | Chris Corneil | Executive Coaching International

Context before content

Feb 16 - min read

I find myself reciting the following quote from Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland to clients with increasing regularity.  

Alice: “Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?”
The Cheshire Cat: “That depends a good deal on where you want to get to.”
Alice: “I don’t much care where.”
The Cheshire Cat: “Then it doesn’t much matter which you go.”
Alice: “… So long as I get somewhere.”
The Cheshire Cat: “Oh, you’re sure to do that, if only you walk long enough.”

It’s a lighthearted attempt to reflect the feedback I am regularly receiving about leaders and leadership. To the surprise of many executives, subordinates are not clear where the boss and organization are heading! And if you think this is purely a problem for the CEO, think again. Anyone who is leading and managing people has a responsibility, and opportunity, to contribute to the organizational journey.

Early in my career I was taught to try and frame conversations by providing “context before content”. Effectively answering the question “why” before jumping into the “what”. In today’s business environment, we will have more success getting teams pulling in the same direction and providing more meaningfulness to work if we can answer why, what and how.

The why seems so obvious and is more often than not forgotten. Ask yourself, why does your organisation exist? Hint: it’s not only to make money! Why do you need to change and do things differently? Why are you perusing the strategy you are, etc? Answering the why question helps to provide the broader context and rationale for everything that happens next.

What you and the organisation need to do has more context and meaning now that you’ve described why. The what is essentially your strategy. I recently had the opportunity to work with the entire partnership of a large law firm. When I asked the partners to describe the strategy of the firm (what they were trying to achieve), I was stunned by the silence! I prompted and prompted and still nothing – not a peep. We couldn’t move forward until we had more context (why) and then we could more easily develop a coherent strategy the partners could use in the firm and the market.  

Finally, once we know why we are pursuing the strategy we are, we can think about how to execute. Several weeks ago I was working with the Asia Pacific CEO of a financial firm. After some hard thinking about why and what they were trying to achieve it became obvious to her that she didn’t have the business organised for success and quite possibly needed some different skills amongst her executive team. Had she not taken the time and discipline to work through the first two steps, she probably would not have developed the insight and certainly would not have had the narrative to mobilise her workforce and make the compelling case for change!


The speed and availability of information in the 21st century lulls executives into believing people know the context and know which way we’re going. Like Alice, in fact most people don’t. As executive coaches, we see examples daily of where executives and the organisation are out of step. Managers and leaders have jumped to the how and what before people understand the wider context (why). Why not try opening your next conversation with context before content and see what sort of reaction you get?  

Chris Corneil is an executive coach with executive coaching international and company director and has had a successful executive career including as Australasian CEO of a large financial services firm. Chris now works closely with senior executives across a wide array of industry sectors in Australia.  

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