One of the most important aspects of leadership is to foster the right behaviors. You do this by serving as an avatar, of course, but you also do so by rewarding those behaviors whether or not they are immediately successful. That may sound counterintuitive, but it’s vital.
When I was consulting with Calgon, the president and I agreed that to change the behavior of the sales force from product “feature and benefit selling” to more of a consultative, solution orientation, we would have to allow them the freedom to experiment and fail. We knew that the first “victories” might take a while.
So, we inaugurated an award at the annual sales dinner for “The Best Idea That Didn’t Work.” Everyone would applaud as the recipient took the stage, received a loving cup, and explained what the attempt had been. It was clear to everyone that the president wanted people to try new approaches, and that failure was not fatal.
If you only reward victories, people will be highly conservative, trying to seek safe “wins.” That becomes increasingly egregious if the alternative, non-victory, results in someone getting “whacked.” Sooner or later, we expect people will win more than they will lose in most pursuits, but to get there it’s important to reinforce the correct behaviors along the way.
This is a somewhat melioristic view of the workplace, but a well-founded one. When the “wins” are the sole important variable, the result is winning at any cost, and you develop a company of arrivistes. Jack Welch was famous at GE for insisting that goals be met, but that they be met consistent with company values and belief systems—in other words, ethically. (Think of the GE debacles in the artificial gas tank explosion of a Ford vehicle on NBC, the Israeli defense bribes, etc. A lot of people were trying to “win” no matter what rules were broken.)
Behaviors, unlike skills, are not all that easy to learn and adopt, though they can be modified or superceded with other behaviors. That’s why hiring for “enthusiasm” is more important than hiring for “content.” You can teach someone the particulars of your company in anything other than highly specialized fields (law, medicine, etc.), but you can’t “teach” them enthusiasm.
I interviewed a candidate for marketing director job at a non-profit the other day, and she sucked all the oxygen out of the room. She had no enthusiasm, no passion, no presence. I don’t care what her credentials or pedigree may be, I’m not going to put that person in regular contact with me or our donors.
Leaders identify, modify, and reinforce the key behaviors needed to leverage their own talents and accelerate growth toward their goals. And that’s a behavior that separates the best from the rest.
Don’t show me all those initials after your name or the piles of testimonials. Show me something right here, right now, that says you can encourage, influence, and interest others. That’s the behavior that will gain my attention.
© 2008 Alan Weiss. All rights reserved.