Corporate Activism & Leadership Transformation — Part 2

Building Value and Impact with Passion-Driven Performance

Corporate activism may be among the most powerful drivers for excellence and innovation today. It is one that enables organizations to really maximize the opportunity provided by their people and deliver strong business performance. It is a new leadership strategy that we have experimented several times, with great results, in a large global organization.

In Part 1 of this post, we’ve started to explain why it works and should be considered by more leaders. Let’s see here two more reasons. Stay tuned for Part 3!

2- Activism propels

As the word shows, it is about action. Activists don’t just talk about an issue, analyze, collect data, craft frameworks and presentations… “Paralysis by analysis”, a disease affecting many organizations, is not a concern for them.

Activists are not indifferent, defeated, merely angry or waiting for solutions to come from elsewhere. They believe they can act upon circumstances (they have a “sense of agency”), and they take action. They may be somehow over-optimistic when evaluating their expected impact — at least that’s my case — but this confidence is precisely what helps them switch to action. Don’t mistake agency with naivety: activists don’t wear rosy glasses. They view with a critical eye the situation they try to influence, while many others just cope with it, ignore the issue or keep themselves busy.

“I’m too busy!”

Busyness, or work overload, is the enemy of activism. It is also a serious disease that affects people’s morale and our organizations’ performance. I personally know way too many burnt-out people. Busyness is often caused by the way organizations work: in a non-trusting environment, we ask too much to too few people (the managers), overloading them with unnecessary controlling and reporting tasks; in conservative workplaces, social tools have not yet replaced emails, which keep exerting their tyranny on people’s agenda.

Addicted to “projects” and “strategic initiatives”, organizations keep adding activity on people. You were used to be busy 100% of your time at work with your regular job, now you’re supposed to do it in hidden time while delivering on “Accelerating X”, “Transforming Y” or “Ambition Z”.

Busyness can also be self-inflicted, arising from a lack of focus, a difficulty in making choices and the zeal to please everybody you report to in a matrixed organization.

Because they want to make a difference, and they believe they can, activists strive for impact. That’s what they focus their energy on. That’s what lifts them from the sticky floor of busyness. They find ways to optimize and accelerate their regular work, thus saving time for their cause. They make choices.

Managers fear activism as a distraction, while it actually makes people more efficient. It grows their leadership skills, wherever they are in the organization — and we badly need that. Not tapping into this energy is a regrettable waste; creating the opportunity to harness this energy, at the service of a corporate performance objective, makes total business sense. In large, old, regulated organizations it is not an easy shift, as it requires a deep transformation of leadership behaviors. This is what I help organizations do.

3- Activism moves

Activism moves, because a cause has an emotional component attached to it. You don’t fight for a Key Performance Indicator; you don’t mobilize your peers for a new plan or an improved process. So, what do organizations need? A purpose?

Anyone who hasn’t lived in a cave for the last few decades knows that “purpose” is important. In 1988 John Kotter introduced the concept of a Big Opportunity. In 2008 Simon Sinek advised to “start with Why”. In 2004 Salim Ismail, Mike Malone and Yuri van Geest found that all Exponential Organizations have an MTP: a “Massive Transformation Purpose”. In 2016 Dan Pontefract described what the “Purpose Effect” does and it is said that Millenials work for purpose over paycheck. [Note: to balance this all-male line up of writers, check the remarkable list of 60 business books all written by women, curated by Rachel Happe].

The need for purpose has probably generated tons of business for communications consultants. However, a compelling purpose alone won’t get you get activists.

What’s the missing piece? Ownership.

To be truly embraced as a cause, to generate action and sustainable “exponential” engagement, a purpose must come from the people themselves. You can’t impose a cause on people, even a great one, even with loads of communication material. With a purpose crafted by a select few, you can at most raise the interest of a broader set. But not trigger real activism. In case the actual behaviors encouraged in your organization differ from your purpose (or “mission”, “value statement”… see Wells Fargo and others) this can even backfire — and trigger adversarial activists.

Organizations that understand the value of activism take the time it needs and create opportunities to make people think together, dialogue, co-create a shared purpose. I’ve mentioned this question several times, as it is to me the real spark to any corporate activist movement: “What is it we want to fight for, now together?”

From there, a successful course of action should include the following:

· The shared purpose that emerges from this conversation should be brought to life through tangible actions, meaning that the organization and its leadership team set time and resources to support activities in line with it.

· Any activity that supports this purpose and that does not require resources should not need any authorization prior to completion.

· A continuous, open conversation around the purpose and its concrete manifestations should be encouraged with the active participation of leaders (on social media, in various events). Emotion words should be part of their vocabulary.

· The purpose should be challenged and re-discussed on a regular basis, to make sure it remains relevant and the newcomers co-own it just as the old timers.

This piece was originally published on my friend Didier Marlier’s blog Enablers. More posts on my blog Stay with me for Part 3 here on Medium!