It’s a "VUCA” world: "Volatile, Uncertain, Complex and Ambiguous”. That’s the abbreviation minted by the US military in the 90’s as it grappled with getting heads around new threats after the end of the cold war. Business too is grappling. Things are changing fast, and not in the direction of stability, certainly, simplicity or clarity. The European project is in urgent need of repair. Politics is in throws between radical leftism on Monday and right-wing populism on Tuesday, both tapping into growing social divides and a polarizing sense of ‘us and them’. The once exiting notion of a globalized world gives way to contraction and isolationism as voters abandon ‘establishment’ and declaring beyond doubt that the world has become too complicated, too scary and too big.
And if the world isn’t the same, nor are the actors. Not many would have bet 10 years ago that some of today’s politicians would run major economies. Who predicted that ‘viral videos’ shot on a smartphone could clock up 27 million views in 24 hours, capable of doing and undoing careers, and reputations built over decades? Did anyone foresee a world where those ‘speaking truth to youth’ would be mysterious Anonymous groups with seemingly magical powers to hack the internet; an internet where a majority of young adults pick up news (and ‘fake’ news) from social media outlets run by billionaires in their 20’s and 30’s?
It’s fast, it’s new and it requires new approaches.
But all is not new. As leaders we are still expected to stave off business risks and keep cool heads as we map a path through labyrinths with seemingly shifting walls of legislators, politicians, civil society, media, and stakeholders. All of which can accelerate, or put the breaks on our journey. None face the challenge more than CEOs and leaders of Corporate Affairs, tasked with bringing together the strategic needs of their organizations with an external world that expects business to take a lead protecting the environment, safeguarding stakeholder interests, constructively contribute to lawmakers’ deliberations, all whilst generating unprecedented returns and creating a winning brand-space in the war for global talent.
As leaders, we fundamentally need people to do things.
We want clear regulation from politicians, endorsement by civil society, expediency by bureaucrats, fidelity by clients and customers, top performance by our executives, and, at times, restraint from those who for one reason or another have put us in their crosshairs.
If a prerequisite for our success is our own ability to mobilize action, then the million-dollar question (quite literally) is – how does one make people act? Especially people who in a shifting world may have risen from different belief systems, cultures and paradigms to our own.
The intelligence community has long worked on the principle of "M.I.C.E” as key motivators for action (action here meaning, ‘tell us your secrets’): Money, Ideology, Coercion or Ego. It’s all about the value proposition, be it positive or negative.
Reductively speaking, people act for two reasons: because they expect gain from acting, or fear pain from not acting (I’ll deliberately side-step a discussion here about moral or ethical imperatives, close to my heart as it may be).
If we accept these premises, that acting is tied to a perception of the overriding value proposition for stakeholders related to the ‘to do, or not to do’, then it’s up to us as leaders to generate the context that sets the conditions for the ‘do’ needed. It’s up to us to tip the balance in our favor.
Building a value proposition – Push or pull?
Tipping that balance isn’t easy. Even less so when under pressure of risks having already manifested themselves into issues, or even reached crisis: Stakeholders appearing to stoke local conflict for no other apparent reason that enhancing their own standing in the community; politicians reticent to constructively engage out of fear that they may come under fire for flip-flopping; NGOs appearing to be more concerned by ‘association risk’ than a desire to collaborate to achieve their stated raison d’être. Situations more likely to fuel frustration and stress, than motivating to magnanimously seek an elusive win-win.
Seeking to push a negative value proposition (i.e. "act, or else”) is something to be wary of. Hard-balling teds to be precarious; short-term tactical gains rarely make up for the long-term strategic cost, leaving the positive value proposition as the much better go-to option. To put it bluntly: unless you are able to credibly pull your target audience into a positive value proposition – you are more likely to fail.
So hand on heart, are you geared up to influence, or just to inform?
Informers talk. They unleash pre-rehearsed key-messages based on a worldview seen from within their own, never mind the audience. They talk about what’s on their mind, without much consideration of whom they have in front. They may be experienced managers, but at times that can be an impediment as they lean on a successful past as an excuse not to adapt. They often leave an encounter feeling good about all the ‘messages’ they managed to cram in, but be less cognizant of the fact that they leave their interlocutor with a sense of "ok, so…?”.
Influencers on the other hand empathize. They listen, and map a path to where their needs intersect with their interlocutors’ value proposition. Only then do they deploy. They invest time and effort to understand their counterparts, enticing them to share where they come from, where they hope to be heading, what they hope to find – what motivates them. They invest 85% of their efforts to comprehend the operating environment and its associated individual value propositions, 10% to mapping and devising a winning narrative, and 5% on the talking. They motivate and leave their target enthused and eager to act. They do not dwell on their own frustrations but keep disciplined focus on the opportunities they bring to their table.
So ask yourself these 5 questions before your next important meeting where your ability to influence will dictate a successful outcome, or not:
1. Context: did you spend more time rehearsing your key messages, or making an effort to immerse yourself in the context and value space of whom you’re meeting?
2. Target: how well do you really know who you’re meeting and what’s driving them? Do you have a good sense of their aspirations or concerns?
3. Mindset: are you fueled by frustration, or by a constructive vision that will entice a feeling of mutual benefits?
4. Mutual win: are you geared up to discuss not only what you need, but also come armed with proposals (or even concessions) that that will assist your counterpart achieving their priorities?
5. Confidence: have you challenged yourself enough to be you confident that you have a narrative and offering that convincingly ties your needs with those of your counterpart? If you were they, would you ‘do’…?
In other words, as you step into the room – are you about to head down a ‘message centric’ rabbit hole, or are you ready with a ‘target centric’ approach. As you leave the room, are you confident that you leave someone behind that’s excited and eager to do what you need them to do, for your business to thrive?
If not – reschedule.