In a conversation I had with John Spence on Friday, he told me he had just returned from a leadership development course that was held at a game preserve that featured lions and rhinos. That prompted me to ask him if he had seen any LINOs while he was there. “What’s a LINO?”, he asked.
“A Leader In Name Only”, I replied.
I won’t tell you his answer, but we both agreed that LINOs are far too common. Unlike rhinos, they are unfortunately not an endangered species. They are abundant and actually quite easy to spot—unless you are one, in which case you usually don’t know it and might need a little bit of help. So here goes.
You might be a LINO if…
- You talk more than you listen in meetings
- The only tool in your box is a hammer
- You think everyone laughs at your jokes because you’re really funny
- People change the subject when you walk in the room
- You think rules are always rules, no matter what
- People do exactly what you pay them for, and no more
- You’re always right
- You’re smarter than everyone around you
- You never try to catch people doing things right
- None of your subordinates ever get promoted into other parts of the company
- Morale always improves when you leave
- You’re absolutely certain none of these apply to you
Most consultative sales approaches, my own included, rely on the salesperson being able to sell the economic value of their solution, by connecting the solution to measurable financial and operational results. The value the customer uses to make the decision is extrinsic, and usually measurable in some way. In some cases, intangible or “soft” benefits that are not directly measurable can be important factors in the customer’s decision, even if they may need to find creative ways to justify these benefits numerically.
But even if we include these intangibles, we’re still dealing with the WIFM model, in which people are looking for some extrinsic reward or benefit in exchange for a favorable decision. Value is expressed in extrinsic and transactional terms.
Yet people also make decisions based on values, even to the extent that they will act against their own economic best interests, or willingly undergo pain or sacrifice in pursuit of some larger goal than extrinsic reward. Persuaders who can enlist the power of values can tap into the powerful force of intrinsic motivation.
In The Art of Woo, there’s a story of how Bono approached Senator Jesse Helms to enlist his support for African debt relief so that those nations could devote more resources towards combatting AIDS. He began his pitch with a data-filled explanation of the problem, (this approach had worked very well with Bill Gates), but quickly saw that Helms was losing interest. Bono, a born-again Christian who knew Helms was also, switched to the language of the Bible and quoted Scripture to make his case. By the end of the meeting, Helms rose to his feet to embrace him, and went on to help raise $435 million for the cause.
Leaders and organizations have long used values to instill commitment instead of mere compliance: to guide and motivate their behaviors and decisions without needing to be constantly monitored, directed and rewarded. Some might say that’s the key difference between leadership and management.
As a salesperson, connecting your idea or solution to your customer’s values can be tremendously powerful: it can show a deep understanding of who they are; it can get you willing champions who will sell your idea internally when you’re not there; it can even win over those who stand to lose out in the short term if your idea is adopted. Best of all, it’s a gift to them, because it helps people bring out the best in themselves. If there is such a thing as a perpetual motion machine of persuasion, that’s it.
But values-based selling can be like TNT, very powerful yet tricky to use. It’s tricky because as an outsider it can be difficult to find out what the customer’s governing values are, and clumsiness in your approach can easily backfire on you.
You have to really understand your customer to know what they truly value. It’s not enough to go to their website and copy down their vision and values statements—too often these are the stuff of plaques and platitudes that no one takes seriously; I used to refer to them in my sales training classes until I quickly realized that most of the participants couldn’t even pick out their own corporate values statements in a multiple choice question. In some companies they’re actually held in contempt, and woe to the salesperson who tries to spout them.
In addition, trying to combine values with value can backfire on you. In Made to Stick, Chip and Dan Heath tell the story of a marketer of a fire safety video who tested an identity appeal against an incentive appeal. The first question was “Would you like to see the film for possible purchase for your educational programs?” The second question was “Would your firefighters prefer a large electric popcorn popper or an excellent set of chef’s carving knives as a thank-you for reviewing the film?” The first question received unanimous “yeses”; the second question was discontinued after receiving the first two replies: “Do you think we’d use a fire safety program because of some #*$@% popcorn popper?” Because the firefighters valued their role as safety educators, they resented the implication that they might need external rewards to recommend the film.
HOW TO SELL ON VALUES
To use values as part of your sales message without getting burned, it’s critical to know your audience and then to apply just the right touch to your message.
Know your audience: how to discover their values
- Start with their written values. Sometimes they are what people really value, and it can help to at least open the conversation and improve your questions.
- Research beyond the customer’s web site; check out articles written by others, speeches by their top executives, etc.
- Ask your champions and coaches: if you want to try something in a presentation or a sales call, run it by one of them first to see what they think.
- Ask and listen: when you’re asking your questions to uncover their business and personal goals, listen for stories, examples and words that indicate personal or corporate values. If you don’t hear any, you can probe a little deeper, by asking whya certain goal is important to them. Listen carefully for things such as:
- Why and how were previous important decisions made?
- Who are their heroes and why?
- What do they measure and reward?
- Get them out of the office. In social situations, people are much more apt to open up about their personal motivations and values.
Apply the right touch
Even if you get their values absolutely spot-on, you may provoke pushback by tying your message too explicitly. People tend to resent being reminded about their obligations to higher values from outsiders, so it’s better to get them to think of these values on their own and make the connections themselves. Fortunately, the process you go through in discovering their values has the added benefit of bringing those values to the top of their minds as you’re talking to them.
During your situation questioning, it’s appropriate to get them to talk about what’s important to them. You can ask about their business goals, and when told, go a step further and ask why a particular goal is important to them.
If you have a good enough relationship with someone, it’s easier to be more transparent in your appeal, so you can be more direct by getting your coach or champion to make the appeal for you.
When a CEO complains that he wants his life back after a disastrous oil spill, is that a leadership problem or a communication problem?
When a copilot fails to speak up after noticing ice build-up on the wings, is that a communication problem or a leadership problem?
When a coach delivers a pregame speech that inspires the team to play better than they thought they were capable of, is that leadership or communication?
I was recently asked by a client to develop a talk on leadership communication, which I delivered last week for the first time in Tokyo. I don’t usually “do” leadership; I leave it to my friend John Spence and to all the other experts who study leadership traits, skills, strategy formulation, etc. I don’t consider myself in their rarefied circles—all I study, teach and write about is clear thinking, persuasively communicated.
Yet, as I worked on my material for the talk, I realized that clear thinking, persuasively communicated, is basically all that leaders and managers do. Their subject matter may be strategy and organization, they may have to know how to arrange and pull the right levers for profitability and growth, but those are just the content they work with. They need clear thinking to give them an accurate understanding of the situation and to use their judgment to make good decisions; they need persuasive communication to make sure those decisions get translated into action by others.
Even top leaders need to communicate persuasively to get things done in today’s world. No one has absolute authority and even if they did, command and control is not the best way to get the best effort out of knowledge workers. That’s why CEOs spend about 85% of their time communicating and only 15% of their time working alone. And it’s worth it: there is a clear link between internal communication effectiveness and business performance, and as the first example at the beginning of this article demonstrates, words said externally can have a multibillion dollar impact on a company’s market share.
It’s ironic that leadership communication is not seen in a better light, considering that persuasive communication is the primary reason that leaders achieve their positions in the first place. I’ve always said that people who can communicate persuasively, who can influence others even if they have no formal authority, who can command a room while delivering a presentation, are leaders. In fact, the very first post I wrote to launch this blog was entitled “Your Leadership Moment”. The best salespeople lead their customers’ thinking by bringing fresh ideas and challenging the status quo. The most brilliant engineers or scientists won’t get the recognition they deserve if they can’t sell their ideas.
Persuasive communication skills can make you a leader regardless of your role, and supply the reality without the title. But that ability gets you noticed, and the title may soon follow. When top managers decide whom to fast-track for promotion, they look for the ability to clearly articulate good ideas and to get things done through others. So, they equate persuasive communication skills with leadership. The ability to communicate propelled a junior senator from Illinois to the most powerful leadership position in the world.
So, to be a good communicator, you have to think clearly and transfer your belief to others. Is that any different from what it takes to be a good leader?
While the skill may lead to the title, it’s possible that the title can weaken the skill. You may be tempted to use fewer of the skills that got you there. Research shows that people in power are less likely to listen to others’ opinions, although they will tend to overestimate their communications ability. One study showed that only 31% of employees rated their internal communications as effective.
One reason for poor leadership communication may be that its nature is much different today than it has traditionally been for business leaders. In the old days, the most important communication skill was the ability to convert your decisions into clear directives that others could understand and follow. Whether they agreed with you or not did not matter. They definitely did not need to understand the reasoning behind your decisions, and any attempt by a subordinate to do so was seen as borderline insubordination. The ethos of the follower was “ours not to reason why”.
Clear speaking, or “transmission” is still important, but it is no longer enough. People who get paid for their brains rather than their hands have to be led differently; they have to be persuaded not just told, and their opinions and ideas must be solicited. Leaders have to spend much more of their time in communications, and they have to use a much richer variety of skills: asking questions, listening, negotiating, cajoling and even pleading. Listening and questioning are hard to do, especially when you’re in charge.
So, if you want to be a leader, study and practice the arts of persuasive communication. If you want to be a good or even a great leader, study them even more.
Congratulations, you’re now in charge. Maybe you’ve been promoted to sales manager; or maybe you’re now a general manager or even CEO. With all that newly-issued authority, things are going to be much easier—no more selling for you; now you can just tell people what to do and it will get done, right? You get to set the vision, craft the strategy, and make the big decisions; everyone else’s job is to get on board and make it happen.
If so, you’re making the same mistaken assumption that Dwight Eisenhower did. After a lifetime in the military, he was used to issuing orders and being reasonably confident that they would be followed. As President, he found that the order was only the beginning, not the end. If so, you’re making the same mistake that I’ve seen in some sales organizations I work with. When I warn sales leadership that implementing a new sales methodology can be difficult, most of them confidently tell me that they will mandate its use, as if that is all that needs to be done.
Authority is like a life jacket. It will keep you afloat in a pinch, but if you need it, you’re already in trouble. And when you’re not in trouble, it just slows you down. Although safety experts recommend that you keep an actual life jacket on or nearby at all times while on the water, leaders should reach for their authority only as a last resort.
The old “Because I said so” model just does not work anymore. It might have worked when managers did the thinking and employees did the manual labor (and even then it had its limitations), but today almost everyone is a knowledge worker, and often they know more than you do about their jobs. Smart bosses surround themselves with even smarter people, but smart people don’t want to be led by you or anyone else—they want you to create the conditions where they can do their thing without being bothered.
There’s also a big generational shift going on. Millenials are much more likely to question why they should do something. With jobs being scarce, they might keep their questions to themselves, but you can be sure that if the question is rattling around in their minds it can drag down their performance.
Finally, in today’s business environment things are too complex, and are moving and changing too fast for any one person to know and control everything. You simply can’t be there to exercise your authority when people need to decide and act; you have to trust them to act on their own initiative, in line with your strategies, intentions, and values.
Authority may in the short run get you the performance and effort you demand, but only persuasion gets you discretionary effort, where people do more than asked because they want to, not because they have to. Only persuasion works when you’re not around, or when you run out of sticks and carrots.
So, what does this mean to you? In short, you still need to sell, explain, and inspire. The tools that you use to persuade are more important than ever.
Listening: If you’re the boss, you need to listen more, not less. Research shows that people in authority tend to discount others’ advice, and 360° feedback programs show that leaders rate themselves as much better listeners than their subordinates do. Are you learning from others, or do you think you know it all? Are you making it safe for others to disagree or to bring bad news?
Asking: Are you immediately solving problems, or are you asking questions to help people solve the problems themselves? Are your questions driven by genuine curiosity, or are they directives dressed as questions? (Leading questions are bad, don’t you agree?)
Telling: Are you communicating frequently? Are you framing your communications in terms that tap into intrinsic motivation? Are you clear? Do people know where they stand with you? Are you consistent?
Acting: Do your actions match your words? Are you setting the example that you want others to follow? Do you follow up on what subordinates tell you?