A leader’s biggest asset is their ability to inspire

Thomas Barta TryThisBlog
By Thomas Barta
Last updated: December 15, 2017

Many executives are keen to inspire customers. But to actualize great customer experiences, inspiring the organisation may just be as important.

When I’m not speaking at conferences, I sometimes teach masterclasses to help marketers raise their boardroom profile.

Not long ago, a technology firm asked me to extend one of my marketing leadership keynotes into a class for 30 of their senior marketing clients. The firm had come to realise that the best marketing software goes nowhere unless marketers get buy-in internally. I couldn’t agree more.

Why waste money on artificial intelligence in online campaigning when your sales team keeps filling your customers’ inboxes with uncoordinated parallel emails? Why install fancy customer experience software when your front-line staff are demotivated and treat people accordingly?

Success as a marketing leader is mostly about mobilising others – but many marketers find mobilising difficult.

What I didn’t know was this marketing leadership masterclass would become one of my most memorable ever. We kicked off with some group therapy, complaining about how difficult things are in marketing. “We’re currently going through a massive transformation” was the most commonly heard sentence. Change, it seems, is the new normal in marketing.

After shifting into productive mode, we analysed marketing’s zone of influence and tested powerful marketing leadership techniques like storytelling, walking the halls, and co-creation.

The highlight of this masterclass, however, came at the end when participants got up one at a time in front of the whole group to give a ‘change’ speech for all staff. These were very personal talks about where people wanted their organisation to go: why, how, and what’s next.

If you want your customers to feel prouder, or healthier, or better served then that’s your message in every meeting, every talk, every important document.

The first two speeches went well, earning friendly applause. The third talk stopped everybody in their tracks. A young B2B hardware marketer stepped to the front. An introvert, she hadn’t been too visible during the class, and people didn’t know what to expect. How exciting could B2B hardware be?

For a moment she collected her thoughts, and then she stunned everybody. In a short speech, she appealed to her company’s staff to bring back what she believed mattered most for their customers: pride.

She shared the story of a customer who talked with enthusiasm about his new toolkit. “I didn’t realise how personally important our tools are for customers – how proud they can make them.”

She concluded with a series of initiatives that would add to the customers’ sense of pride: more confident packaging, bolder design, aspirational sales catalogues, supportive call centre dialogues, and a new customer-exchange network. “We must always remember: when our tools make people proud, we’re unbeatable.”

You could hear a pin drop when she ended. And then enthusiastic applause broke out. When I asked for feedback, one participant hit the nail on the head: “It seemed like you really mean it.”

How to inspire others

‘You really mean it’, to me, best summarises what it takes to inspire other people. As a marketer, almost everybody around you can say no to your ideas: your colleagues, your bosses – even your team members. Your biggest mobilising asset is your ability to inspire. People don’t have to follow you. But if you sincerely inspire them – if you really mean it – you have a chance they’ll join your cause.

Here’s the good news: every marketer can be inspirational. There’s only one condition – you have to be inspired first.

What do you stand for? After I give keynotes, I often ask people to share with me their most burning priorities. Many talk about an overdue job promotion or the lack of a sense of purpose in their role.

If I were to ask these people’s colleagues ‘What does this person stand for?’, I might hear things like ‘ambition’ or ‘having a cool life’. There’s nothing wrong with that. But would I be keen to follow these marketers? Probably not.

Almost every marketing role holds amazing inspiration potential. I’m always baffled when marketers complain about a lack of purpose.

Make a conscious effort to show the fire in your eyes.

I get the purpose-issue when you work as a human slave in a mine or as an underpaid grunt just to pay your bills. But in marketing, unless you sell a seriously damaging product (and then, I guess, you must have strong reasons to do so), you can always understand customers better, serve them better, make better products for them. Why not start here?

Unilever’s Paul Polman has set himself and his company on an aspirational course to improve the quality of people’s lives. When Paul talks, you can see the fire in his eyes. His passion is not only believable, it’s contagious.

To be fair, when you’re in charge of in-store promotions, Polman-like inspirations can look pretty far-fetched; and when your day job doesn’t square with a highly Instagram-able purpose, you might get stuck. If that’s happened to you, it’s time to get unstuck.

Find your inspiration

If you haven’t found your inspiration yet, here’s a tip from my masterclass: imagine you’ll be leaving your company 12 months from now. I’m your customer. How will you have made my life a little bit better? Think about your customers first. Start small. Generate a few ideas. Perhaps none of these ideas will sound dazzling. Never mind. Pick one and push it for a while. See how big you can make it.

The year before McKinsey elected me as a partner, a senior colleague told me: “I love your work, but you are super uninspiring.” I was puzzled. How could I go the extra mile, over-deliver, and then be uninspiring? This was seriously chilling news. I was a telecoms marketing expert, but that wasn’t the point; people wanted to know what I was burning for.

My idea at the time was to make telecoms companies more customer-focused. But I didn’t think that purpose was grand enough to share with my colleagues – I didn’t believe it was even remotely exciting. I was wrong.

When I made my purpose front and centre, it not only inspired me more, it inspired the people around me. (Looking at today’s telecoms firms, I’m unsure how significant my impact was, but that’s for another article.)

Once you know what inspires you, double down on it. Make every interaction count. That’s what marketing means. If you want your customers to feel prouder, or healthier, or better served then that’s your message in every meeting, every talk, every important document. Make a conscious effort to show the fire in your eyes.

A few days ago, I followed up with the B2B marketer who had told the inspirational story in our masterclass. While she felt it was still early, she already counted two wins. She got a slot to speak at the next sales leaders’ conference. And she was invited to help redesign the call centre training, the first marketer ever to do so. “When I first told my story,” she said, “I was pretty nervous. It took all my courage, but it worked surprisingly well”.

As a marketing leader, being inspired gives you the courage to do what all customer leaders should do: think about customers, scrap your job description and do what’s right. So, what’s the fire in your eyes?

(From my Marketing Week column).