Sometimes I hear that change in a company can be supported by the concept of internal heroes, role models, or promoters. You elevate an individual that has the sought after behaviour and turn that person into an internal hero. The idea is that others will follow. Can this be a fruitful method for companies going digital, in this case meaning transformation of the way they handle customers with an improved online presence? Let’s look at a couple of cases and discuss a few pros and cons with this concept.
Case 1 – Keep an eye on the details
Once upon a time I worked in a big multinational company. We wanted to re-position the brand from ‘product pushers’ to ‘a partner delivering solutions’. Messages, campaigns, websites, brand platform, and communication activities were all changed and geared towards the new brand promise. But, nothing happened with how the customers perceived us. They were still viewing us as product pushers. What went wrong, you ask? Very simple, we used key players as heroes and promoters out there in every corner of the organisation but the sales force that faced the customer did not change behaviour because of a few promoters of the new brand promise. At the end of the day the sales people still sold products because products were not packaged into sellable solutions. Obviously the customers did not change their view of us. In this case, the concept of promoters did not even have a microscopic chance to succeed. Lesson learned; you can spend millions of dollars but the devil is still in the details. Remember Challenger? Ask NASA.
Case 2 – Culture beats process
Another company I once worked for set out to implement the company core values internally. A marketing agency had been updating the brand platform leading to a visual identity with design elements. But, nothing had been done internally in order to establish the foundation of the brand platform (a very common approach from agencies in my view). The company realised that something had to be done since field service personnel did not dare to support customers unless there was an explicit work order. Lack of flexibility in internal processes was not compensated for by acting according to wanted core values (which included professionalism and caring about customers). The implementation project started discussion groups throughout the company with key players and informal leaders as discussion leaders. The topic for discussion was how to interpret and act according to the core values. Soon enough the core values were implemented to a level where individual on-brand behaviour was appreciated by colleagues and process deficiencies were mitigated. The concept of few promoters did work in this case. And, eventually any employee acting in line with the core values was denominated a hero. Culture beats process.
There are numerous studies indicating that the most preferred sources of information and knowledge is our own colleagues and peers (examples; Edelman 2014, Young Ai Kim, Jaideep Srivastava, Raya Fidel, Maurice Green, Judith S. Olson, Gary M. Olson, and many more). The question is whether we can use this trust in order to change the organisational approach towards markets and customers? It would probably depend on who we select as messenger—hero or promoter. I would personally trust a subject matter expert more than a layman. But, the thing is that I have to select who is the expert and not. No one else can do it for me.
I often hear friends and colleagues claim that ‘yes, of course we are a customer oriented company’. I then usually ask; ‘when was the last time you talked to anyone in your company that actually meet with your customer on a regular basis’? The answers vary and the bigger the company, the less internal interaction. I find that most companies have an untapped resource in the people working in the frontlines. In a recent article by Chris Zook, in Harward Business Review, he highlights the importance of keeping the focus on the company front lines. Are these the heroes that can lead you in the transformation? Maybe, but be aware of the risks. Are the frontline people open-minded enough to recognise the changes in market and customer behaviour and prepared to change themselves and lead a transformation? Or, are they just focusing on getting that short term fat bonus check?
Heroes or not? It is a matter of belief. Personally I believe in empowering teams and promotion of the right behaviour. I do not believe in individual heroes since heroes come and go and most of them do not last as long as needed. And, as long as the company has more than two people employed it takes teamwork to reach success. You win as a team. Then promote the team.