(This is Part 1 in a two-part blog series which I’ve worked on with a colleague, Denise Lee Yohn . We’ve each taken on the topic of influence in leadership and are exchanging blog posts. Here is Denise’s post from her perspective as one who has led change from within organizations like Sony during her corporate career and from the outside as a consulting partner, a role she has played for the past 6 years. Next week, my post on the topic will appear on her blog)
In the weeks leading up to the mid-term elections last month, the struggles and shortfalls of the Obama administration were analyzed by many. One recurring theme in particular caught my attention because it sounded like it could have been a description of what plagues many business leaders. It’s best summed up by the phrase “policy and politics” which I’ve adapted as “ideas and influence” for its application to business.
A lengthy New York Times Magazine piece describes how the Obama administration put too much faith in policy and gave too little attention to politics:
Most of all, [Obama] has learned that, for all his anti-Washington rhetoric, he has to play by Washington rules if he wants to win in Washington. It is not enough to be supremely sure that he is right if no one else agrees with him. “Given how much stuff was coming at us…we probably spent much more time trying to get the policy right than trying to get the politics right. There is probably a perverse pride in my administration — and I take responsibility for this; this was blowing from the top — that we were going to do the right thing, even if short-term it was unpopular. And I think anybody who’s occupied this office has to remember that success is determined by an intersection in policy and politics and that you can’t be neglecting of marketing and P.R. and public opinion.”
This post isn’t intended to argue the merits of Obama’s politics, nor of the Times’ and other analysis. Rather it’s to suggest that the lesson the administration has learned is one that business leaders need to learn as well. That is, it isn’t enough to have solid strategies and good programs – to be successful, you must also have the influence to get them implemented.
This is an important point for all business leaders, but in my experience, I believe marketers are particularly prone to what I call “smart syndrome.” We work really hard on developing smart solutions, only to see them fail because we don’t have enough juice in the organization.
And I say “we” because I’ve been as guilty of this as anybody. For years, I operated with the belief that all I had to do was come up with the most brilliantly creative and strategically sound solution. But I’ve learned the hard way that it takes more than a great idea to sell a great idea. I need to ensure the organization embraces the great idea — and that takes influence.
I’ve found two things helpful in increasing influence: understanding the organization’s capacity to change and being open to outside perspectives.
Capacity to Change
The NY Times piece about how the Obama administration failed to get as much traction for its ideas as it would have liked says, “The biggest miscalculation in the minds of most Obama advisers was the assumption that he could bridge a polarized capital and forge genuinely bipartisan coalitions.” In the same way, I believe business leaders often underestimate what it takes to implement their ideas.
What seems like a no-brainer to us may be strongly challenged by the organization’s culture, structure, and working norms. Our personal belief in our ideas may blind us to the barriers we must address. An edgy marketing campaign might be what’s needed to jump start the brand but it might be too big of a leap for a conservative company. Responding in real-time to suggestions and complaints voiced by customers through social media might stress an organization’s legacy systems as well as its formal communication style.
That is not to say that leaders shouldn’t work on increasing their organization’s capacity to change, but first we must understand it. We should follow the example of Antonio Lucio, chief marketing officer of Visa. In commenting at a Spencer Stuart panel about how he successfully shifted from working for companies like P&G and Kraft where marketing typically dominates, Lucio explained, “I became an anthropologist, listening and learning to understand the culture’s capacity to change.”
Lucio’s quote also speaks to the other thing which increases influence – learning. Leadership is as much about learning as it is about leading – and specifically learning other perspectives.
The New York Times piece reports, “Insulation is a curse of every president, but more than any president since Jimmy Carter, Obama comes across as an introvert…While Clinton made late-night phone calls around Washington to vent or seek advice, Obama rarely reaches outside the tight group of advisers like Emanuel, Axelrod, Rouse, Messina, Plouffe, Gibbs and Jarrett, as well as a handful of personal friends.” The takeaway for business leaders is the value of seeking outside perspectives.
At the Spencer Stuart panel, Michael Mendenhall, SVP and CMO of Hewlett-Packard, advocated for marketers taking a broader view. He explains, “It becomes increasingly important to have those strategic conversations with your CFO, investor relations teams, government affairs teams, strategy and corporate development teams and all key stakeholders…”
It’s particularly important to seek out perspectives from people with informal or emerging power. As the Tea Party’s impact on the mid-term elections and national dialogue can attest, we shouldn’t dismiss people or groups simply because they’re not part of the established power structure. And we should always have our antenna up for new voices.
Working only with an inner circle may be easier and more efficient, but inviting outside input usually produces more traction. Hearing others’ perspectives helps leaders strengthen or refine an idea; and even if we choose not to incorporate the input, it gives us a leg up on how to sell the idea.
Marketers, and all business leaders really, may be judged by the quality of their ideas. But unless they have the influence to get their ideas implemented, they’ll be remembered as a wonk – not a winner.