Why Effective Leaders Never Play It Safe

Standard

The audio version of this article can be found here, plus an archive of past publications

What allows a few corporate leaders to take risks so effortlessly? And why are so many of the rest over-cautious, trapped in behaviors that leave staff uninspired and disengaged? These tough questions resist one-size-fits-all answers but much can be learned from the leadership of Dr. Martin Luther King.

Few realize that he died with a disapproval rating of 75%, higher than any leader in modern times. At the time, many believed that his approach was not only wrong, but unnecessary. As a result, according to those close to him, he became increasingly disillusioned inside, but to outsiders, he just kept moving. He continued to put himself at physical risk, and today Americans revere him with a 90%+ approval rating.

However, King’s example isn’t only for CEO’s and Managing Directors. In fact, anyone who wants to make a difference must face similar challenges, regardless of their level. Here are two ways to remain motivated as a change agent in your company.

Fleeing Familiarity and Safety

Anyone who is inspired with the ability to see a shiny new vision is cursed by their good fortune. Why? Inspirational feelings soon wear off, revealing an opposing force which feeds on fear and pulls them backwards. It represents the familiar parts of their lives, the routines to which they have become accustomed, the comforts they have embraced. These were all-important right up until the moment when that new vision disrupted everything.

King was no different. He was living a comfortable, middle-class life as a pastor of a church and a father of young children when he was recruited as a spokesman for the Montgomery Bus Boycott in 1955. He was 26-years old.

Over the objections of others, he steadily abandoned the path other ministers in his circles had followed. This brought him into a sustained, dangerous confrontation with enemies intent on destroying his work and personhood.

However, at the very beginning he may not have perceived the upcoming threat to his life. Like many of us, it was probably more about giving up everyday middle-class certainty for a vision of the unknown.

In fact, a week before he was caught unawares by a nomination to lead the Montgomery Improvement Association he turned down an opportunity to head up the local NAACP chapter. He was too busy, he explained, taking care of this church to serve in a community position.

Thankfully, he accepted the new role in spite of the time pressure.

As a corporate change agent, you may know what it’s like to fail when the moment to step up to lead arrives at your doorstep, dressed in unfamiliar garb. Like Lot’s wife, you glance wistfully back at the fruits of your hard work, afraid to lose them. It pays to look ahead. Here’s why.

Being Willing to Be in Harm’s Way

As a first-time manager you may have been shocked to discover that the easy life you imagined after being promoted doesn’t exist. Now, you find yourself in harm’s way: the subject of criticism from employees below and executives above.

But it’s just the beginning. With every promotion it only gets worse: the risk increases, takes on new forms and arises in ways you never thought possible.

Seasoned executives will tell you that their perks pale in comparison to sleepless nights, undeserved attacks and targeted gossip that comes from any move into the limelight. They also share that leadership is about accepting such uncertainty, while consciously putting oneself in harm’s way. In other words, it’s a bad idea for the employee who has learned how to avoid risks at all costs.

Even King admitted that if he had been given time to think about becoming the leader of the new organization, he would have declined. It was a decision made in response to the moment.

Yet, we only understand it as a historic turning point in hindsight. On that critical occasion, the choice before him was similar to the ones you face each day. Like every other chance to lead, it eventually passes and life goes on, but the difference that you could have made is lost; sometimes forever.

Take this example and multiply it a few hundred times to get an idea of why change in your firm takes so long to bring about. Many company cultures are built on staff members clinging to familiar gains while habitually avoiding risks. They have learned to avoid the key moments when they could step up to lead.

As an agent of change, don’t run: instead, look for these rare opportunities. Prepare yourself to be in harm’s way. It’s not about being reckless, just understand the risk and accept it as part of the cost of leadership. The history of icons like Dr. King shows us that your decisive action in these key moments makes all the difference.

 

 

 

 

How to Reach Customers with Engaged Communities

Standard

Click here for the audio version.

What can be done about the apparent high level of dissonance between local brands and their respective customers? Most executives and customers at companies like JPS, Digicel and NCB want a close, trusted relationship, but why do managers complain that this outcome is harder to deliver than ever?

As a consumer, I notice that the brands I frequent spend a lot of time and energy shouting (i.e. advertising) at me. They behave like someone who has become unhinged: yelling out unexpected things at inappropriate times, forgetting they know who I am and trying to interrupt to satisfy their insatiable need for me to “Buy Now.”

In their haste they forget that I once made a purchase and was probably satisfied. This dementia leads them to pool me with other strangers who have never spent a penny, treating us all alike.
This is an expensive error. Instead of having inexpensive, quiet conversations with frequent customers, they crank up their advertising budgets to an anonymous public that’s already complaining about too many distractions. They’d be much better off creating online communities that allow their customers to interact with each other in fruitful ways. In fact, they should know from experience why this is crucial.

Most companies have long abandoned the idea that an employee should never speak to someone outside their department without going through their immediate manager. It’s more productive to talk directly. Yet, firms are perfectly fine treating customers as if they are silos, doing nothing to encourage cross-talk. Consequently, they pay a high cost.

Not that your customers submit to this treatment and stay silent. They are too busy talking to each other about your brand via the latest technology. Behind your back, they are using WhatsApp, Messenger and other social networks that share news faster than any announcement, billboard or banner ad.

Some motivated fans go further, and set up their own Facebook pages, groups and Twitter hashtags. Case in point: West indies Cricket. There is one official Facebook page, but ten groups set up by individuals. Given the squad‘s poor performance, and the animosity felt towards its administrators, it’s not hard to imagine the content of these forums.

Unfortunately, in the case of the three major brands I mentioned, their Facebook pages are also filled with complaints. Hardly a complimentary note can be found. Why? People with strong feelings just want to know they are not alone and actively seek out others.

Fortunately, inexpensive technology now exists for your company to be proactive and turn the tide. Instead of waiting around, launch online communities that serve the needs of all stakeholders by giving customers a way to speak with, learn from and help each other.

In the past few months, I have set up a new (free) network for Human Resource professionals at CaribHRForum. To avoid making big mistakes, I did some research into online communities and was amazed: what used to be a hit-or-miss affair now has solid, recent resources and studies behind it. Here are the steps I recommend you take, condensing best practices I am learning to use.
1. Define Community Goals with Customer Input
Effective online communities are a partnership intended to satisfy the unmet needs of brands and their customers.
Your company should simultaneously develop objectives for the community while fostering a small group of customers. Give them access to a basic platform and get them talking to you and to each other about their needs.
2. Upgrade to a Scalable Platform
This is the point to make some tradeoffs. While Facebook is free, it’s noisy and distracting. The average person spends only a few seconds viewing their brands, according to data collected.
Paid community platforms allow members to be more focused and are built for growth. Select one of the many which exist that suits your needs and find someone to manage it.
3. Match hypothetical with actual behavior
Once you get up and running, put yourself in learning mode. Perform the following tests of your community member’s habitual behavior and your tactics.
Test #1 – Members should all be treated alike.
See what happens when you offer a feature or piece of content to different segments. They may not be real.
Test #2 – Members respond to incentives.
This assumption is the lazy manager’s default. In reality, people’s motivation can be complex, especially within communities with long-term relationships.
Test #3 – Members will recruit others.
Ask them to invite others and see how they respond.
Remember, your customers probably had an initial positive experience and desperately want to relive it. Your new online community is a structured way to bring them together to achieve a win-win: a meeting of your goals and theirs. Repeat the trick often enough and they’ll thank you for trading in your shouty ads for decent, engaging conversations.

Why Your Business Needs a Mature Relationship to Standards

Standard

You can find the audio version of this article here.

We Jamaicans have a difficulty noticing high standards, even when they hit us right in the face. This habit ruins organizations when leaders are the worst culprits.

For example, even our savviest business leaders sometime fall for hucksters who promise miracle “opportunities” which provide instant, effortless riches.

Case in point: I recall intelligent friends trying to convince me that Olint and Cash Plus were legitimate ventures being made available to the common man “by God’s Grace”.  These weren‘t isolated con jobs. Apparently, we Jamaicans have a weakness for this kind of argument. We want to achieve success without giving in to the high standard which it demands.

In this context, I can think of two situations in which we are challenged.

1) The first occurs in the moment when we realize that we have just become part of a relationship which calls for higher standards than we have lived by. It’s often a shock. In one situation, a coach I hired threatened (in writing) to double her rates, then triple them, then fire me if I missed another appointment.

In another unrelated case, my late arrival at a meeting was met by a locked door.

As human beings, we don’t react well in these circumstances. “How dare they?” we exclaim, then indignantly try to beat down an “oppressive” standard. We look for weaknesses, loopholes and back doors. If there’s a bly or relationship we can find to free us from the obligation, we’ll use it. At the very least, we get everyone to agree: the upholders (like my coach) are Nazis, no better than Backra.

Paradoxically, we all love the end-result of high standards. Government and Rhodes Scholarships. Winners of Champs and Schools’ Challenge. The manicured lawns of the JCAA. Profits. The teacher we had in school who demanded greatness from us, and got it.

Perhaps we need to adopt a new personal maxim: “Whenever I am forced by a new environment to meet a higher standard, embrace the opportunity.”

2) But what should we do when the opposite situation occurs? Instead of being hit by a high external standard, we find ourselves in organizations where standards are eroding before our very eyes.

At Wolmers, I saw first-hand what happens when incompetent leadership suddenly replaces its opposite. Imagine a student being caned in the middle of prayers, interrupting a scripture reading. Eventually, teachers began to give up their role as disciplinarians. By the time I reached 6th form, prefects were giving twice as many detentions as teachers.

When standards deteriorate, most of us complain loudly. However, we may be disingenuous. Case in point: We desperately  want to have an effective JCF, but also want to be able to safely “let off a smalls.” (Arguably, the only reason the JDF remains relatively unsullied is because it has fewer contact hours with our citizens.)

In daily corporate life, it’s just as easy to abandon high principles. For example, when a CEO or MD displays low standards, few are willing to confront him/her.  Unlike our best police, soldiers or firemen, employees are unwilling to put themselves in harm’s way.

In fact, the propensity to play it safe is seen by many as a necessary skill for corporate survival. Sticking out your neck for an abstract ideal is judged as unrealistic.

If you find yourself in either of these two situations, resist the urge to walk away. Instead, follow these steps.

  1. Gain a deep understanding

Create a clear picture of the behaviors that comprise the standard. Break it down into small actions anyone can learn so that you can act accordingly to fix the problem.

  1. Look for colleagues who agree to the standard

While not everyone will see the situation the same, some may. Find others of like mind and strengthen each other’s resolve to take a stand and face the attendant risks.

  1. Campaign

This is no short skirmish. The battle to change a culture involves much introspection as protagonists struggle to either attain a high standard or keep one from disappearing. To succeed, they must find ways to speak truths on ever larger, more public stages. Do it well and you can create an internal change movement.

But that is only the start. The daily battle is to take risks in the face of disagreement and ridicule. It requires courage to live out of higher standards in both situations.

While we Jamaicans are usually not social cowards, our workplaces are staffed with people in play-it-safe cultures. They sincerely believe there is no alternative. They are wrong: there is. We just need to step up and accept the cost of high achievement. It’s no more than an inner resolve to take brave actions in service of higher standards.

Francis Wade is the author of Perfect Time-Based Productivity, a keynote speaker and a management consultant. Missed a column? To receive a free download with articles from 2010-2018, send email to columns@fwconsulting.com