Leading from Behind, Shepherd or Sheep?

'Shepherd_and_Sheep'_by_Anton_Mauve,_Cincinnati_Art_Museum

The concept of leading from behind used to frustrate me. It struck me as a cop out, as a way to avoid doing what was necessary. Generally, in my mind, it used to be about a would-be leader not performing and everyone else having to step up to fill the gap. It meant the commander lacked vision, so they simply hung back to see where others might take them. Or worst still, in their cowardice, they would just let their team go out ahead and if something bad happened, they could blame others and remain safe –effectively becoming the Pierson Puppeteer of the business world.

Of course my first introduction to the concept came after complaining to someone about a past boss’ inability to lead. They suggested that rather than focus on the boss’ weakness, I should look to how my own strengths could support organizational objectives – how I could fill in the gaps. Although I was somewhat dubious in obliging this request, the result, for a time anyway, was better morale and better productivity for my team and me.

Since then I have changed my perspective – from assuming it meant weak leadership – to recognizing that leading from behind can mean vastly different things, some of which are positive. Nelson Mandela is often quoted when speaking to this leadership style because he popularized the idea in his writings and through the following quote, “It is better to lead from behind and to put others in front, especially when you celebrate victory when nice things occur. You take the front line when there is danger. Then people will appreciate your leadership.”

Its important to note that he mentions that the leader moves to the front in times of danger and that there is an intended direction.

In organizations focused on innovation and breakthrough technology, the idea of leading from behind is particularly effective. In this sense leading from behind means giving employees the space they need to think and act creatively about desired outcomes. Individuals are encouraged to engage, to argue, to express differences of opinion and to act collaboratively. Tightly regimented activities or overbearing processes will not stimulate the discovery of new and more efficient ways of doing things.  It’s hard to foster originality when autonomy is missing in action. Using a more traditional leadership style, creating a vision and then inspiring others to implement it, may simply bring the organization down to one person’s limited vision.

Implicit in a leading from behind approach to leadership is also that employees feel safe. Leading from behind means that when actions are taken they are treated as exploratory rather than a verification or test of being correct.  To paraphrase Harvard professor Linda Hill, “In environments where leading comes from behind, you have experiments, not pilots.”

Experiments allow you to learn and explore.  Even when they fail, you learn. From an employee engagement perspective, leading from behind means creating environments that employees want to be in. Spaces that are collegial and that support independent thought, creativity, and the exchange of ideas effectively become strong communities. These are always appealing to employees. We all like to be paid well, but we will stay in environments that are comfortable and inspire our creativity.  They are also essential to productivity.

In many respects leading from behind is really about tapping the strengths of the collective.

This takes me back to where I started; leading from behind should not be about supporting a weak boss. It can be about being open, inspiring, supportive and having a strong enough ego to allow employees to show their strength. It is about embracing an environment of innovation.

What’s your your preferred leadership style? Do you believe in leading from behind?  Have you ever worked in an environment where the leadership led from behind? Would you like to be in an environment where the leader works from behind?

Interesting Articles for Those Who Want to Know More:

Image by Anton Mauve [Public domain or CC0], via Wikimedia Commons

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Handling Hecklers

Handling hecklers - communications

Whether you’re standing in front of an audience of thousands or your colleagues in a meeting, handling a heckler is no fun, but it can be done with aplomb.

In various studies conducted over the years public speaking has ranked number one as the most feared activity.  In some studies almost 30% of respondents have indicated that they feared public speaking more than death. Jerry Seinfeld may have put it best when he said, “Most people would rather be in the casket at a funeral, than giving the eulogy”.

Since public speaking can encompass delivering a lecture, standing up in class or a meeting to express an opinion, there are any number of communications opportunities that get missed due to fear. In fact, fear of public speaking can have a negative impact on your career and can undermine success in life if you do nothing about it. The good news is that you can do something about your fear.

There are tried and true methods explored in Trips, Sniffs and Nerves  and in Body Language that can help you to overcome everything from your hesitation to sweaty palms. However, there are other things that can go wrong that have little to do with your preparation or nerves, but can make you reluctant to speak. Although it doesn’t happen often, every once in a while you will come across someone who wants to challenge the authority of the speaker.  They may have an agenda of their own and are looking for a forum, they may be holding a grudge. They may simply be cranky. Whatever it is that motivates this verbal bully, you can manage them just as you do other aspects of your presentation.

The first thing that you need to remember is that you are in charge of you and your presentation. There are tips out there for taking on a heckler and perhaps having a battle of wits, but that doesn’t seem like much fun for you if you’re nervous about public speaking and certainly no fun for the audience unless you’re a professional comedian.

I enjoy public speaking. I happily abandon the stage and walk in and among the audience when presenting. Hecklers don’t phase me and I generally try to incorporate them into the presentation…to a point. If practice makes for a better presentation, then taking on an additional presenter in the middle of delivering is hardly going to improve your performance. Instead, avoid grandstanding and deal with a heckler by taking a deep breath and allowing the heckler to deliver their message. In most cases, the audience will be more annoyed than you are by the interruption and let the heckler know it, but that can only happen if you let them have their airtime and keep your cool.  Once they have said their bit and you have responded (to the group, not just the heckler), they are generally prepared to be quiet.

If that’s not the case and they persist in disrupting you or being rude, consider the following tips:

  • Acknowledge what they are doing, consider saying, “You’ve made many points or asked many questions.”
  • If that isn’t sufficient, then let them know how they are making you feel. This is not an opportunity to be rude, accusatory or judgmental. Try saying, “I’m having a hard time completing my presentation.” or “I’m having a hard time finishing.”
  • If the heckler just really wants to keep going no matter what you do, solicit the aid of your audience by asking them through a show of hands what they would prefer, the rest of your presentation or an impromptu presentation by the heckler.  If you have been patient and have allowed the heckler to say their piece and have responded, the audience will vote them off the island.
  • If you are in a meeting consider thanking them for their input and saying no more or ask them if they would like to continue the conversation privately later.

During the Question and Answer Period

  • Challenge a negative premise.  The world isn’t always doom and gloom. Worst-case scenarios are interesting, but not the only eventuality. Addressing worst case scenarios or “what if” questions will typically lead to you saying things better left unsaid.
  • Use reflective language to ensure you understand their point and to let them know you were listening, try saying,  “So you are saying…” This approach also works if you get a heckler on your blog.
  • When you do respond, don’t repeat baiting words – use your own words or risk being quoted later with words you never intended to utter.
  • Remember to remain calm yet assertive.
  • Don’t speak on behalf of others.
  • Keep your own opinion to yourself if you are representing an organization. Any comment you make will be recalled as being organizational. Even if you state it as a “personal opinion”
  • If you can’t answer a question, give a reason why you can’t answer and move on. Don’t guess or speculate. Consider saying, “I would rather not speculate and I can’t answer your question.”
  • Break up multi-part questions in your answer.
  • More than anything, remember that you’re in charge of your reactions.

Have you ever run across a heckler online or in person? How did you manage the situation? Have you ever seen anyone do a great job of dealing with a heckler?  What did they do?

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What’s Better, Ideation Or Creativity?

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My office went through the StrengthsFinder process earlier this year and “ideation” was one of my identified strengths. In the past when I’ve done similar things, in lieu of ideation I would draw the “creative” card. While my colleagues would nod in agreement, seeing it as a compliment, I’ve always been a bit suspicious of the description. What does creative mean and really, in practical terms, what is its value?

Before I go on I should point out that I love the idea of creativity in most aspects of my life. I like to paint, draw, write, garden, cook all things people generally think of as creative endeavours. Work in communications also requires creative components, and I believe in creativity’s role in enhancing everything from messages to services. My suspicion comes from the fact that I also know that if you are doing your job well, then it will be based in research and best practices. When those things are absent, the creative process can act as a blind or distraction rather than an enhancement. Making something that is poorly thought out or ill conceived look appealing or worst still, strategic, is a great way to build incompetency into your organization or project.

Doing a job well, any job, requires contemplation, research, planning and hard work. Talent can help, but without the other pieces it doesn’t go far. But when someone says, “your creative” I always get the impression that they think that is the whole process.

So is ideation any better as a descriptor? Perhaps. Without going into the full description, Gallop describes ideation this way, “People who are especially talented in the Ideation theme are fascinated by ideas. They are able to find connections between seemingly disparate phenomena.”

I have to admit, I love when small, seemingly inconsequential actions create big ripples. If you can figure out what small thing you need to do to make your big objectives line up, then you have a powerful tool. The Behavioural Insights Team from the UK, you may know them as the “Nudge Unit”, was created to explore just those things. Their research is focused on determining what little nudge is required to change behaviour. Some of their insights include.

  • Wrapping presents nicely increases the likelihood of the gift being well received.
  • A handwritten letter is more likely to get a response than a typed missive.
  • While people like choice, the more options you give them, the less likely they are to make a choice.

Facts like these intrigue me. They remind me that sometimes solving problems is not about coming up with the most original thought, the most elaborate plan, but better understanding how things work and what motivates people. Ideation doesn’t assume anything about the nature of ideas. It acknowledges that ideas can be creative, simplistic, time tested and any number of other things. That has real appeal to me.

Like creativity, ideation without due diligence in research and methodology will not produce good results. Consider that what we call brainstorming sessions are ideation sessions. Research shows that they produce poorer results than if people try to think of new ideas on their own. There are a number of reasons for this:

  1. We tend towards consensus in group sessions and this means that most sessions develop variations on existing ideas rather than exploring new ones.
  2. Introverted participants are generally less vocal in these sessions which means part of the group is never really heard and
  3. We often go into sessions without research. Essentially we start from scratch.

Not all brainstorming sessions are created equal, but the general rules of engagement most people employ do not produce stellar results. So what works best, ideation or creativity? Or are they really just variations on a theme? Whatever your preferences, they both perform best when they are coupled with work, knowledge and strategic thinking.

What about you? What do you consider the pros and cons of creativity and ideation?

Image Courtesy of Leigh Righton through Flickr

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Does opportunity knock or slip in through the back door?

Taking advantage of opportunity is a lot harder than it sounds. Opportunities rarely come wrapped like beautiful presents. In fact, there are times when opportunity looks suspiciously like a setback or failure. I have confidently declared something to be a bad idea only to reflect on it later and realize it was actually closer to genius.

One thing I like to remember when an opportunity slips past me is that even the best opportunity seekers periodically get things wrong. Bessemer Venture Partners (BVP) is gracious enough to share their misses on their “anti-portfolio” web page. If you’re ever kicking yourself for missing out on a great thing, just wander over to that page. It’s not so much that misery loves company, as it is a good reminder that even the experts periodically get it wrong. To give you an example of one of their misses – they turned their nose up at Google.

So how do you know when opportunity is staring you in the face… or even quietly sitting next to you? Mark Rice and Gina Colarelli O’Connor describe opportunity recognition as, the match between an unfulfilled market need and a solution that satisfies that need. Seems straightforward enough right? The challenge is that unfulfilled needs are often no easier to identify than opportunity, especially if you don’t have a deep understanding of your market. So, starting with what you know, is the best way to hone your ability to spot an opportunity.

You have to have incredible knowledge of your market or area of interest. Imagine what your response would be if someone offered you shares in LinkedIn, Pinterest or even Facebook if you didn’t know anything about social media. How could you assess your options? How would you know what might happen? Even if you did know about social media – things change. BVP said no to Facebook because “MySpace” was already in existence.

The challenge of opportunity is that it can be shrouded in risk or the possibility of failure. Even if you get past the fear factor that risk imposes, you might still only partially recognize value. Something might seem like a good concept, but the application of the idea is limited. Only after new perspectives are discovered does the full potential for the original idea become fully realized. The story of the post it note illustrates that well.

Given all the variables at play, what kinds of questions can you ask yourself? For me it begins with the basics:

  • What are the advantages?
  • What are the disadvantages?
  • How long will it take to come to fruition?
  • Do I have the time it takes to make this work?
  • What variations on the idea can be considered?

The thing about asking questions about ideas when they are presented to you is that you are not only continuing to learn, but you are also assessing your environment. Opportunity sometimes knocks, but for those times when it slips in the back door, open-minded curiosity is your best ally against missing out on a good thing.

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Service At All Cost

Best Service ID-10095047

When I first worked for a member of parliament I was tasked with responding to all of the correspondence that came into the office. This was back in the day when correspondence involved the postal system and computers had two colour options for screen displays, orange or green.

Some of the messages we received would be from industry leaders expressing everything from concern to dismay about a recent government announcement. Some were outraged letters from constituents complaining about misguided government policy. Many of the letters were, well for lack of a better word, crazy.

They reminded me of nothing so much as, Letters From A Nut, these missives from Ted L. Nancy were rife with odd requests and strange preoccupations. The difference is, that while comedian Barry P. Marder wrote the Ted L. Nancy letters, the letters appearing on my desk were written in full earnest by constituents.

The woman who wanted the grass around the mailbox cut, not the lawn…that was cut, but the grass a few inches from the box, “it was a disgrace on federal property.”

Or the lady who felt she had a democratic right to a free air conditioner. Then there was the gentleman who wrote to his MP to explain how much he liked to eat road kill. He at least was pleased with government policy that made that possible. Of course he was not nearly as disturbing as the two brothers from a rural part of the country who wrote in demanding wives. I’ll admit an air conditioner seemed almost reasonable by comparison.

The thing is, no matter how odd or outrageous the letter, a polite and reasoned response had to follow. The issues could not be ignored, dismissed or blown off. Constituents who had taken the time to write in deserved an answer. Whether it was clarity on constitutional rights or a quick call to Canada Post requesting that someone with scissors head over to the post box in question, letters were not only answered, the issues in them were fully researched and addressed as far as possible.

What that experience in a political office did was give me an effective lesson in customer service. What it looks like, how it operates and the lengths you need to go to. You see it didn’t matter that we did not deliver the air conditioner, what mattered was that we took the request seriously and responded thoughtfully. People remembered that on Election Day. To be sure there were times when people wrote in or called the office with issues I found offensive, but my job was to listen first, see what if anything could be done to address the issue, explain why if it could not be addressed and offer up alternate solutions.

Since my time on the Hill I’ve had plenty of moments where I’ve thought back to those letters. Instants where I would have liked noting more than to kick the person in front of me, instead, I’ve smiled and thought of ways I could help. It isn’t always easy, it doesn’t always work, but the interesting thing about that is, in the end, whatever was making them/me/us crazy didn’t matter. We didn’t remember the issue, just how we felt at that moment. People don’t remember the specifics of the product they remember the service.

Image courtesy of Miles Stuart at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

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Subtle Garbage

Subtle Garbage - CommStorm

I’ve driven past this scene hundreds, possibly thousands of times and yet I only noticed it last week.  It’s a scene not far from a highway exit I regularly take.  How do you not notice a junk yard? I was making fun of the city’s attempt to hide the unsightliness with greenery, but clearly they were successful. What does this subtle garbage bring to mind for you?

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What Exactly Is Your Issue? Four Tips For Better Lobbying

Comm Before The Storm

what's your issueI was on Parliament Hill recently and as my colleagues and I fanned out to share our messages I kept thinking about all the possible outcomes ahead of us.  We had the same message to deliver, but personal style and approach can make subtle changes occur that effect comprehension, reception and even perceived objective. This means that when presenting an idea, the question of knowing EXACTLY what you want is critical.

Whether presenting to government, an interviewer or potential client, it can mean the difference between success and failure.   If you are unclear about your issue, or do not ensure that your audience is clear on what you want, you may find yourself achieving an outcome you didn’t anticipate.  As time management expert Alan Lakein so succinctly put it, “Failing to plan is planning to fail.”

Take for instance the consumer advocate groups that lobbied the Canadian federal government for years on the issue of labelling…

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Loathing Fear

English: Photograph of Parliament Hill, Ottawa...On Wednesday, October 22, 2014 a lone gunman gave Ottawa a taste of fear. In the days following the tragic events in Ottawa’s downtown, the media covered the story with slow, in-depth and repetitive detail. Every aspect discussed, every perspective pursued. Even now we continue to look and ponder. We learned the anatomy of the fear experienced by everyone. Those on Parliament Hill who heard shots and then knew nothing more of what transpired for hours. We learned of the fear experienced by those in lock down in the many government buildings surrounding the Parliamentary Precinct. We heard of the fear experienced by the sergeant-at-arms who confronted and killed a man for the first time in his long career of service. We heard about the fear of the pedestrians close to the war memorial where a young soldier lost his life. The fear of the passerby who stopped and comforted the dying soldier as he drew his last breath and of course, we learned of the fear and shock he must have felt on that fall day.

No doubt if we could gage the level of stress experienced by the city of Ottawa on that day it would have spiked through the charts, but more concerning for me is the level of fear that we retain as the events of that awful day fade away. “Should we tighten security on Parliament Hill?” one poll asked and of course in the rush of fear following the shootings, the public said, “Of course.”

Well as someone who has always been proud of the fact that we give our citizens open access to our parliament it makes me angry to think that one gunman’s loathsome actions could charge us so full of fear that we create barriers between the public and those who run the country. Do we need to tighten the way we implement current security? Certainly. Are there things that could have been done better? No doubt. But as an exercise in marketing fear, I’d like the gunman’s actions to ultimately fail. Democracy, personal rights, political and religious freedom are among the things we put at risk when we let fear campaigns dictate our actions.

Today, when this post goes up, a week after that gunman terrorized MPs and citizens alike, I will be on Parliament Hill along side hundreds of other people. Like them, I will be meeting with individual MPs, telling my story. Like those others, I have a good story to share, one focused on public health, one acting in the public interest. More importantly, I’ll be reminding MPs, and perhaps myself, that they are there for very good reason and that access to the public and the publics’ access to them should never be the price we pay for security. I expect security will take a little longer, but I am pleased to know that voices like mine will work to drown out a loathsome message of fear.

Photograph of Parliament Hill, Ottawa. Taken from Ottawa/Ontario end of Alexandra Bridge. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

 

 

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Marketing Attitude

Marketing AttitudeI was at a conference on the weekend. It started on what was for me the third day of business travel. I was tired but looking forward to getting some new insight into how to keep motivated. About halfway through a three-hour workshop I realized that I was getting nothing from the lecture. In fact, the more time I spent in the room the more demotivated I felt. Talk about unanticipated outcomes. It wasn’t that the speaker wasn’t engaging. She was actually great and quite funny, but her material was dated. You’d have to move well beyond talking about S.M.A.R.T goal setting if you want to keep my attention. My table-mates were also uninspiring. They too thought her material was old, but they also had a tone. There was an underlying unpleasantness towards each other and their missing colleagues. It was disrespectful at best and openly derogatory at other times. Made me glad I didn’t work with them.

I made a note to avoid any other lectures from the presenter and I left the session. It was one of the best decisions I could have made. I ended up in a conflict resolution lecture instead. I’ve rarely laughed so hard. It was clever, insightful and I can say without a doubt, conflict has never felt so good. The rest of my day unfolded in a pleasant fashion, but as I was reflecting on the morning’s adventures I couldn’t help wondering about how attitudes, our own, those of service providers and even other customers influence and effect how we perceive brands.

While I was waiting for the conflict resolution lecture to start the woman ahead of me in line gave me a big smile and my own happy disposition reasserted itself. The woman turned out to be the lecturer. Given her smile, I felt confident she’d bring the right attitude to the lecture. She didn’t let me down. It reminded me of a study I read on the effects of greetings on shoppers, no not the typical Wal-Mart greeting, but a real greeting, like, “Hi, is it still raining out?” for mall shoppers. The study indicated that shoppers are more likely to report a positive experience from their shopping trip if they are greeted and told goodbye. So although they may have a neutral journey through your store, the emotion they experience coming and going will dictate their impressions.

Of course the customer’s attitude before they enter a store or a website will also influence their experience. Had I been in a cranky mood when I started the first lecture, I doubt I would have lasted 15 minutes. I also wondered about the experience of customers going into the store of my workshop tablemates. I couldn’t help but think that their office dynamics would make for an unpleasant experience.

So many elements are at play when a brand is being experienced that we constantly have to ask ourselves, what am I’m doing contribute to my brand? Even when we are being vigilant we can get into trouble. On my way home I was standing at airport security waiting to be scanned when one of the security personnel walked up to her colleague and reprimanded him for complaining about something in front of passengers. I wonder what she thought her reprimand in front of me was doing for customer relations? Marketing attitude is something we have to be thinking about all the time. Marketing the wrong attitude can have such a lasting impression, that no matter how good the product, people will be reluctant to engage. The same can be said about marketing the right attitude; it can carry you through even the most unforgiving lapses.

Have you had an unpleasant experience work out because the attitude was right or perhaps the reverse is true? Have you had any great experiences that came as a result of great attitude more than great product?

Image courtesy of Stuart Miles and FreeDigitalPhoto.net

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Marketing in the Uncanny Valley

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A few years back (before I joined them) the Canadian Association of Optometrists ran a campaign called, “Open Your Eyes”. The campaign included a commercial that garnered a fair bit of commentary. It featured a woman who rises out of bed and begins to make her way through her morning routine with her family. The thing that makes the commercial a point of discussion/debate/division is that she has her eyes closed throughout, but her lids are painted with eyes in a striking light brown. The result is an uneasy appearance. As the commercial unrolls the camera pans to show the viewer things her perspective. As she encounters her family and neighbours we, the viewer, are surprised to see that no one reacts. She and they wave and interact as though everything is normal. The commercial is arresting, but it also makes the viewer uneasy, in a word, the commercial is uncanny.

Little Baby’s Ice Cream took uncanny into the realm of creepy. They ran an ad that featured a somewhat androgynous ice-cream being, who stares piercingly out at the viewer as she slowly and methodically eats herself. Starting at the top of her head she scoops away more and more of herself while her stare becomes increasingly vacant.

Although we know that these images are contrived, intended to get our attention, they are still disturbing. Uncanny is like scary, but operates almost on a subconscious level. It can sit close to normal without being at all normal. That proximity between normal and creepy can be so disturbing that it can create cognitive dissonance. So why would someone marketing a product ever want to cause the consumer mental stress?

Simple really, if the advertising works just right, they are disturbing, but utterly memorable and believe it or not, appealing. Little Baby’s managed to garner national attention and their sales followed in a steady upward projection long after the initial commercial was aired. The commercial has received well over seven million hits on YouTube and the “YouTubers React to Little Baby” has received over eight million views. The success of Little Baby’s was so profound that they created more commercials, all uncanny, and even a documentary on the making of the commercials.

What these short and disturbing offerings are is a brief titillation. They get our attention, make us giggle, get grossed out or better still, they make us talk. They are startling and disturbing, but ultimately safe. This type of advertising does not require the endurance needed for a horror movie and they do not induce the physical reaction or risk of extreme sports, but they do give the viewer a jolt. They are the flip side of humorous advertising that lulls and amuses while it imbeds itself into our minds. Both can be effective or foolhardy.  It is not an easy line to walk, but if you can hit it home, the results can be spectacular.

Whether promoting a book, movie, service or product, when have you seen uncanny work it’s magic?  Have you ever thought of doing something a little off-putting to bring attention to a product or service? What do you think of uncanny advertising?

Image by Masahiro Mori and Karl MacDorman

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