Now is the time to recognize your heroes

Events in Japan continue to grip the world in shock and suspense.  Much more will be written about management and decision-making in response to this crisis, but recently attention was focused on the courageous perseverance and dedication of Tokyo Electric Power’s nuclear plant technicians. We all must feel grateful for them – but why does it take an extreme event to remind us?  These are the same people who worked steadily to maintain safety every day, before a tsunami overwhelmed their facility.

Corporate events often feature a speaker with a remarkable story to tell in an effort to motivate employees.   Or they produce a video extolling some extraordinary accomplishment.  These stories capture our attention, and may inspire us to strive a bit harder, but they also imply that outsized achievements are the only thing worth applauding.  We’re happy to tell stories about those who respond to a crisis – but what about those who make sure that the crisis never happens in the first place?

The reality is that we are much more dependent upon the steady, unsung efforts of the daily grind.  As one Harvard Business Review article put it: “It’s hard to argue with the accepted wisdom—backed by empirical evidence—that a motivated workforce means better corporate performance.”  And knowing that one’s daily contributions are noted and valued is surely motivating.   Companies that really lead their industries acknowledge employees on a regular basis.  They pay attention over the long haul, and look for opportunities to applaud those who keep the office humming, the plant safe, the shipments inspected and the environment protected.

In its statement on the situation in Fukushima, the I.B.E.W  points out that there are 15,000 workers at 42 nuclear plants in the U.S. today.  Let’s hope their employers don’t hesitate to let them know how much their efforts are appreciated.

Why the King matters…

As you might imagine, my vote for best picture this year is The Kings Speech.   If you haven’t seen it, I suggest you do…today!  Not simply because of its numerous Oscar nominations, but because you will rarely see the significance of trust so well expressed.

In this elegant film, the coach Lionel Logue sees courage and possibility in the Prince of Wales, while the future King can only focus on the barriers his speech impediment creates.  Lionel demands trust from “Bertie,” which is the foundation of building trust in his own leadership potential.

I believe we have many exceptional leaders whose awkward speech hinders their effectiveness.  And today we desperately need them to be effective, and not to be stymied by anxiety.

It’s no wonder this is common: the risks associated with taking messages public, and the negative impact of less-than-effective performances can be magnified upon replay.  Contemporary examples of bad message delivery abound:  the tone-deaf remarks of BP’s ex-CEO Tony Hayward, President Bush’s public praise for his FEMA chief, Howard Dean’s excessive enthusiasm in front of the microphone.  Political leanings aside, we cringe to see leaders pilloried in the media after a misstep – because it discourages those who may have the ability, but not the confidence, to take on a leadership role.

Delivering messages successfully is not about talent. It is about hard work.  It is about taking the resources you have, building on them and pushing them to their limits.  And as this film illustrates, great performance is not just about the physical characteristics of the task.  That is just the beginning of the work.

To get to the true power of performance, you must find the courage to let go of those demons that would limit you.  Have the courage to share your beliefs, principles and ideas.  Embrace the task of understanding your audience and use your own best abilities to reach them.  And as the audience nods their collective heads and realize that the speaker is speaking to their needs, beliefs, principles and desires, a well-delivered speech connects with people in ways that surpass volume and diction.

Who wouldn’t want their leaders to have this capability?  It’s powerful.  King George VI spoke with the voice of one who faced down personal limitations and overcome them. He did so because it was his duty to inspire confidence – but also because someone trusted in his courage, and gave him the ability to help lead a great nation through crisis.

Enough for now!  Hope you enjoy Oscar night.

Elementary Performance

Last week the media buzzed with reactions to a supercomputer’s victory:  IBM’s Watson trounced human opponents solving puzzles on Jeopardy, with only occasional pauses or mistakes.  This provoked all kinds of speculation about the future of human/computer interaction.

One fact overlooked in the discussion was this:  Watson had no consciousness of the audience.  No way of knowing whether anyone was laughing at its answers, cheering with delight or gasping in surprise. How much more difficult would it be to teach a computer to take on an unscripted Q&A session with a live human audience?

That’s a challenge that business leaders face on a regular basis.  Questions come up that can’t easily be answered with a Google search or by matching data in stored documents.  There are fine nuances:  beneath the surface of a question there may be a challenge, a plea, a demand or a hint (the unspoken question is often the most significant).

Those are aspects that speakers should listen for, and need to address if they wish to be effective leaders.  But with more and more Q&A sessions taking place online, with limited face-to-face interaction, the challenge is magnified.  How do you read nuance in a text question?  How do you judge the mood of an invisible audience?  Computers may be capable of analyzing online discussions and social networks, but having data is not the same as having answers.

And would we really want a Watson to explain corporate policy or predict industry trends?  Not likely.  What’s needed is better ways of connecting leaders to their online audiences so they can become attuned to the nuances of online buzz (and online silences) and respond with feeling.

An Ear to the Groundswell

Keeping up with the breaking news from Egypt in recent days was a challenge for anyone, including experienced news analysts.  But the most clueless comments of all came from then-President Hosni Mubarak.  Clearly, he just wasn’t listening to “his” people.

Sadly, many leading business executives seem to have similar challenges.  They may be good at listening to their peers, or their advisers or leadership teams, but the voice on the shop floor?  Not so much.  And the impact of that is demonstrated by numerous cautionary tales ending in bankruptcy: poor labor relations at Delta and US Airways, whistle-blowers ignored at Enron and WorldCom, excessive risk-taking at Lehman Brothers and Washington Mutual.  Not to mention dozens of firms that struggled to profit from ill-conceived mergers with baked-in cultural issues (can you say AOL?).

Perhaps those leaders were so caught up in what “the message” coming from the executive suite ought to be, that they failed to hear the warning sounds outside their windows.  The message from the ground in Tahrir Sq. was “we know what we need, and it isn’t you.”  Leaders who take time to show they are listening before a crisis hits are more likely to remain standing when it has passed.

Making the Stage your World

If it is true, as so often said, that people fear public speaking more than death itself, we might expect to see an unusual suicide rate among corporate executives.  But that isn’t the case.  So, why not?

I think companies like ours can take some credit.  We work hard to ensure that presenters on stage appear comfortable and engaging, and are able to hold the audience’s attention for however long they speak.  It’s critical to find time for rehearsal, reduce distractions and help focus the speaker on the task at hand.  Then we can find the appropriate vocal tone, tempo and natural gestures that will make that speaker most effective.

Our ultimate promise to clients is this: we will never let you look like a fool in public. That’s not unlike the promise a theatrical director makes to his actors.  The director’s task is to bring the production to life.  Though audiences may question the play, or even the casting, they shouldn’t fault the performance.

Being There

While communication technology changes with the times, the times cannot alter the fact that nothing replaces actually “being there.” What has changed is the art of being there.

We have been hearing for years about how Hollywood has been gearing up for 3D out of necessity to keep the movie-going experience relevant. The success of the film Avatar is heavily dependent upon its 3D immersive experience,  though for many 3D may still seem gimmicky.

Avatar succeeds by not only telling you a story about another world, but also putting you in that world.  This heightened sense of immersion allows you to feel the experience as if you were a character, adding a deeper element to the storyline.

Immersion: humans clamor for it.   Tweets, and views and clicks  contribute part of the story, but we want more. We no longer want to observe the show, we want to be in the show.

Living the Experience

The Vancouver Olympics ended on a glorious note last night.  As in the opening ceremonies, the audience, covered in their white ponchos, became part of the canvas.  And for those of us in the “business,” who knew someone was wrong when the fourth leg of the cauldron never materialized on opening night, the “do-over” was simply brilliant.  It was live, and we all experienced it as those present in Vancouver did. It was a show.  It was an event.

Today’s business communication leaders can learn from this. If you need to create an indelible impression on your audience you need to immerse them in it.  You need to invite them in and not be ashamed when you make a mistake. They are watching you as you watch them.  Don’t be afraid of making it a show.  They are clamoring for it.  All the world, after all, is a stage.