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February 19, 2019

Call to action: CEOs should lead the way

As we anticipate the inaugural address of the 45th President of the United States, it is timely to remember what John F Kennedy said at his swearing-in ceremony in 1961.

“In the long history of the world, only a few generations have been granted the role of defending freedom in its hour of maximum danger…. The energy, the faith, the devotion which we bring to this endeavour will light our country and all who serve it - and the glow from that fire can truly light the world. And so, my fellow Americans: ask not what your country can do for you – ask what you can do for your country.”

I’m not reproducing this call to action for reasons of politics. Far worthier – and far sillier – commentators than I will deconstruct and re-contextualise whatever the incoming US President has to say. I raise it for your consideration because this column is all about how businesses succeed … or don’t.

Here we consider how organisations present themselves to the market; and how often their internal cultures are out of kilter with the promises made to customers. We also celebrate those enterprises who get it right. Where every employee understands the business they are in, and is clear about the contribution they can make.

Business leaders who make promises to the market need to be mindful of the fact that they are promising on behalf of others. Specifically, their staff, representatives, agents and partners. The people who are enjoined to live up to those promises in their daily work. The check-in staff who deal with delayed passengers; the assessors of insurance claims; the accounts receivable staff.

Traditional leaders have always liked to induce a sense of obligation when they call their staff to action.

I cannot tell you how often I have seen JFK’s photograph and the ‘ask not’ quote prominently displayed in a CEO’s office. OK I can – it is four times. And each time the incumbent CEO was misguided in likening his business to a leading republic; and himself to the admirable late president.

Obligation to contribute and performance guilt are no way to run a business. They cast the internal narrative of the company in a negative light. And they delight only bullies and toadies.

Happily, increasing numbers of modern business leaders are doing this a better way. Firstly, they identify and describe a desired customer experience in terms that everybody can understand. Then they create an internal culture where staff are permitted to deliver that experience to the best of their ability. Where employees can interpret the brand promise to address a range of eventualities that no CEO could anticipate. Where trust allows an appropriate level of delegation. Where success is celebrated and suggestions for improvement are welcomed.

So, here’s a presidential message to the region’s business leaders: “Ask not for your staff’s commitment to you, unless you have committed to them.”

Chris Harrison leads BrandInside

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