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Corporate Journey to Truth, Trust and Two-Way Conversations

Corporate Journey to Truth, Trust and Two-Way Conversations
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TRUE caught up with management consultant Dov Seidman at the Arthur Page Society meeting Sept. 29 in Boston.

Q: If the press release is dead and the old ways of communicating outmoded, how do companies engage authentically?

Dov Seidman: Most companies realize they’re in the era of behavior; that behavior is not just playing defense and controlling the story. It’s about leaning into the world, understanding how the world works today, and turning its conditions to your advantage; realizing that every employee, every customer, every stakeholder, is telling your story, whether you like it or not. So if you can create a corporate character, if you can create an ecosystem of mutual, loyal, committed relationships, your story will be told because it was earned based on the real, relational dynamics; based on real products that people value; services that delight them and don’t just meet the minimum of obligations. So, in many ways, the idea that you can manage your reputation is giving way to the notion that you can only earn it, one behavior, one interaction, one customer experience that’s rich at a time. And I think the companies that realize that it’s not about telling the story, but manifesting it through their behavior, are the ones that are taking the most ground.

Q:  What do you mean when you talk about brands no longer living on paper?

Seidman:  The resume was the most efficient piece of paper ever created; every human life reduced to a page. When we had that, we thought we could control the story. We put what we want on our resume; we polished the resume with the help of some friends, and we put it out there. We came to job interviews, and we thought we controlled the conversation. Well, companies also have to put out their resumes. But instead of telling the corporate story, putting the message out there and having one-way conversations, companies now find themselves in two-way conversations about human values, their mission, mutuality. So where McDonald’s used to say, “We’re great. We serve billions of people,” the company now talks about childhood obesity and trans-fats and nutritional food.

Today, we are in two-way conversations. It’s about how we engage, how we conduct a two-way conversation. And, more importantly, it’s the content of the conversation. It’s about human values, the mutuality, relationships where we share in values, share in missions—but it’s no longer my way or the highway. The only way to create that dynamic is through a two-way, respectful conversation. So the idea that we can put the story out there, as opposed to creating a company and a culture worthy of the story; one that we can put the story out there and think that there’s no say-do gap is really the table stakes and the competitive stakes of the 21st century.

Q: How do companies begin the process of creating a company worthy of trust?

Seidman: Companies need first to recognize that they’re going on a journey to a world that’s really animated by moral values. This is about reconnecting with Adam Smith, who was the father and founder of modern capitalism and also the chairman of the moral philosophy department at Glasgow University. Smith argued, I think effectively, that sustainable prosperity always requires moral frameworks and values. And I think companies today need to recognize we’re at an inflection point.

Companies understand that they’re in an interdependent, human world where we rise and fall together. That’s a moral relationship where we depend on each other. They’re proclaiming that they get that world. They’re telling the world, “We get it, let’s have a relationship in a zone that transcends our product and services and our pricing models; that they need to be great, but our competition can reverse-engineer us overnight, faster than ever before. Let’s have a relationship in a human zone where we share values and can create a real loyalty towards each other.” But it’s a journey to get from here to there. And if companies can start to communicate the journey they’re on, what makes the journey authentic and genuine, the investments they’re making, the change they’re making, they can buy themselves a lot of time and a lot of space. Because no one is looking for perfection; they’re looking for authenticity.

Companies need first to recognize that they’re going on a journey to a world that’s really animated by moral values. We’re at an inflection point.

Q: How can we recognize companies on a journey, trying to embrace this new world order?

Seidman: The companies that are on a journey, that are really trying to lean in to the 21st century, they’re likely going to be flatter. They’re likely going to avail themselves not just of rational mechanics, of carrots and sticks applied against clear policies and expectations and goals—they have their place—but they’re really, frankly, going to become more human. They are really going to get very explicit about the purpose of significance. “We exist in the world to make a difference, to create human value in these ways. We’re going to make that happen through this mission, and we’re going to need values to guide our way. Values are not enough—we have to do the hard work of translating these values into corporate practices and policies and leadership and individual behaviors that really manifest these values.” But you can’t march on a long-term journey without leading indicators of, “Are we making progress or not?” They are going to embrace the idea that it is still a world where you manage what you measure, but they’re not just going to measure the “how much,” as in how much profit, how much revenue, how many page views and click throughs and friends and followers. All that matters, but they’re going to start to measure how they’re doing business, how loyal are their relationships, how collaborative are their relationships, how much are they in a partnership with the supply chain as opposed to arms-length contracts. So we’re going to also see the deploying of how metrics and now just the how much.

Q: How do more traditional concepts of power and authority fit into this world?

Seidman: You can’t get anything done worth doing in this world without some power and authority. Formal authority translates into, “Do this because I’m the boss, and I have leverage over you in this relationship.” That had its place and time and we got a lot accomplished using it, but I’m seeing that type of leadership decay and lose currency. That’s creating a space for a moral authority and power that really is sustainable, that really creates waves of human connection and inspiration. “Do this because you trust me. Do this because you believe in me. Do this because I behaved in ways that have earned your loyalty, and do this because we share a mission that’s worthy of our mutual commitment.” And not just moral authority, I’m also seeing power through people; two-way conversations that let people become a voice for the company, a voice for the customer.

If you go back 12 years, every Super Bowl was won by a command and control dictatorial coach, but the last Super Bowls were won by quiet, relational, connect-and-collaborate coaches. And, sports is certainly about winning and competition.

The new Pope is also extending trust, coming out from behind the security barrier, connecting with people, trusting people to keep him safe. The Pope gets a letter and calls that person. The Pope is really creating a wave by connecting with people via how he’s inspiring and relating to them. It’s a very two-way approach and about honesty. Nothing is more emblematic than trusting someone with the truth. Give it to them because you trust that they know what to do with it, that they can be compelled by the quality of that truth to do something constructive and good in the world and for the company.

Q: How do executives respond to this idea of sharing power and trust?

Seidman: Well, it can be very generational. Up and coming leaders never really created the habits of old-school conventional power, so they are more readily understanding about the way the world works, that it’s a relational world, that power flows two ways. Among leaders with more formal positions of power, later in their careers, you’re seeing some people hunker down and try to hang on, but you’re also seeing others go on a transformational leadership journey. Of the last six coaches that won the Super Bowl, five were young up-and-comers who manifested from the get-go a connect-and-collaborative approach. Tom Coughlin was an old-school coach who went on a transformational journey to extend trust to players to make decisions in a leadership council in the locker room of the New York Giants. I’m seeing one CEO after another start to get the new world they’re living in, and many have the courage to change and transform, just like Coughlin.

Q: How do you know when a company is well on its way on this journey or when it’s actually arrived?

Seidman: The best way to know if a company is on its way is whether they’re behaving the way they say they ought to behave. Companies are human enterprises. If a business is manifesting its deepest convictions through how they treat you, how they delight you—and only a human being can delight you and give you an experience—then that company is on its way. But no one ever arrives—It’s a journey. As a country, we’re still trying to perfect our Union. But, we’re far from perfect, yet our journey is a glorious one. What matters: Are we authentically and genuinely on a journey? If companies are on a journey, then people will cut them a lot of slack as long as every day they’re trying to make progress.

Homepage photo credit: Haaretz/Tomer Appelbaum

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About the author

Dov Seidman is a management consultant and the author of HOW: Why HOW We Do Anything Means Everything. Seidman has focused on how companies and their employees can operate in both principled and profitable ways. Fortune magazine called him “the hottest advisor on the corporate virtue circuit.” He has addressed the World Economic Summit and the Clinton Global Initiative.