Year after year, for the past ten years, my partners and I have run an average of fifteen “Conventions” per year for our clients. Such large gatherings of leaders are usually the moment in the year where the Board seeks to communicate on “The State of the Union” and hopes to unleash further the passion and energy of their leaders.
Most of the time, we are invited to partner with internal functions such as HR, Marketing, Strategy, Communication etc… It also frequently happens that we are requested to team-up with external providers such as communication agencies, conference organizers and sound/light engineers.
It usually runs smoothly and we have, so far, always succeeded beyond our clients’ expectations and ours, except once in 2008 where our client was happy but we weren’t proud of ourselves.
My partners and I recently reviewed our experience in the field and came out with some findings we wanted to share with you. They are well illustrated by the clip here below, already presented in a different context here :
- Broadcast is not engagement: John Cleese (Rollo Lee) is very clear: “There are three things I want to keep: This zoo, your jobs and fierce animals”. He expresses specific expectations (12% return on assets). The communication is crystal clear and well orchestrated… However, the resulting engagement is poor. Conventions which are PowerPoint plagued and follow “a broadcasting logic” fail to engage. Challenge is a sign of engagement. Participants need to be given space and safety to question, share doubts, disagree, propose ideas and suggestions, if we want to truly engage them. As Meg Wheatley wrote once “If we insist on obedience, we will never gain it for long, and only at the cost of what we wanted the most : loyalty, intelligence and responsiveness”. The same logic applies to co-creating engagement vs one way communication.
- Distance to power destroys value: As two bright researchers in Brazil (Marco Tulio and Carmen Migueles) showed on this blog, distance to power instills the pernicious and costly virus of lack of trust… The leader on this clip is into “Logos delivery style”, meaning that his behaviour looks distant and arrogant and he fails to engage at the emotional level. He asks rhetorical questions and doesn’t seem to want to listen to the replies. It is fundamental as a leader to reduce the distance to power, to be with our people, to avoid the usual trap of the 2 meters high stage with at least four meters distance from the audience so that the cameras of the communication agency may better catch the moment on their videos…
- Style and symbols is what people will emotionally take home: The misalignment between the leader and his team is shocking on this clip. In terms of dress code, language, examples, cultural references, a CEO must start from where his people are and not the other way around. This is again something outside suppliers usually fail to see as they try to impose “what worked well last time with another client” instead of taking the time to go and understand their audience’s culture and referential.
- Lack of courage and reinforcing the beliefs of the boss: we obviously cannot count on the caricatural assistant of Rollo Lee to challenge his beliefs, orthodoxy and winning formula. Usually outsiders and sometimes even insiders of the organization behave the same way towards the CEO, their client. We were once asked to collaborate with the worse (to date) communication agency we ever came across. They almost “succeeded” in turning a whole Convention into a long lasting disaster (happy to share their names with you privately if you wish to avoid them in the future;). We should have gathered from the style they displayed amongst them (fearful looks from younger assistants towards the “Queen Bee” before daring to emit an opinion, lack of coordination and ownership of decisions taken, commitment taken in previous meetings being overturned by the Queen Bee who had not attended the meeting, using a jargon that reassured them but was loosing the client) that a company having such a poor, “1.0 style of leadership” would only come with outdated ideas about organizing such an event. They were constantly comforting their client into doing the wrong thing (for example setting across the stage a huge and high table behind which executives would have sat the whole time if it weren’t for our intervention and removal of this Iron Curtain). If we, as leaders expect engagement from our people, we must have the courage to challenge our comfort zone, expose ourselves (not literally for our many British friends reading this blog), making ourselves vulnerable, being transparent, allowing people to disagree and engage into a debate. Hiring “consultants” from the past who will do their best to keep a Convention inside the comfort of their winning formula is wrong.
- Transparency is directly linked to the level of engagement: Human beings have a powerful instinct for smelling when their leaders are authentic or not. In a very recent Convention with a large industrial French group, we were all impressed when the CEO and his fellow Board members spoke without notes, from their heart and with conviction. The CEO moved the audience by opening up his heart on the extremely painful memory of one of his past failures… There were no games being played. At the differences of what well intentioned and incompetent functions sometimes feel they have to do, the Board asked themselves the politically incorrect questions when they felt their audience did not dare to ask. We all left the room, intimately convinced that the Board had been totally fair, open and transparent.
To the leaders reading us: This is your most important act of engagement of the year. You cannot subcontract it!!! Too often still, you delegate (out of a good intention) the organization and design of what should be your Convention to internal and external support. This is a true mistake and the quality of the engagement process suffers from this lack of… engagement of yours. Collectively, this is where I would still challenge most of you whom we have the honour of serving. Too often do we hear: “It should be like this because the CEO said so… or The CEO imperatively wants this, or The CEO won’t be at ease with this” and a barrage of assistants, PA’s and project managers seek to prevent us from reaching out and challenge your comfort zone. My invitation is to progress on this specific aspect.
I hope you will find this post relevant and think of reading it again when you will decide how to organize and design your next Convention: a pure communication exercise or a solid engagement process?
Paris and Brussels on the agenda this week. Have a great week all
 Fred Schepisi & Robert Young “Fierce creatures” 1997 and purchasable on http://www.amazon.co.uk/Fierce-Creatures-DVD-John-Cleese/dp/B00005956K/ref=sr_1_1?s=dvd&ie=UTF8&qid=1300624512&sr=1-1